Shipwrecks and Sailfish, Guatemala’s Pacific Coast Diving

June 12, 2013 Updated: April 24, 2016

Captain Oscar Marroquin picked us up at the fuel dock in the village of Las Lisas. Fishing is the main occupation in this small town where local markets offer the day’s catch. Captain Marroquin got his fiberglass boat in 2007. He works with his brother Marcos and crew member Moises Guerro. Part of the deck is covered to provide shade. Powered by two Yamaha 150 horsepower engines the ship is fast. We got to the first dive site in about a half-hour.

The trip offered many photo opportunities of water taxiis and traditional fishing boats. It was a relaxing trip after the 2 hour drive from Guatemala City. Newly paved roads and a modern bridge made the drive easy. Roberto Matheu, owner of Pana Divers in Guatemala City, organized the dive trip. He offered refreshments around from a large ice chest he packed aboard.

It was an adventure we shared with filmmakers from Ruta Verde, the Green Road, action television series seen throughout Latin America. We planned to dive on the wreck of the Springfjord. It was a deep wreck in 120 feet of water. Roberto prepared emergency tanks that would be hung beneath the dive boat. He planned to use 28% Nitrox to extend our down time and decrease decompression.

The Springfjord was a commercial vessel built for an English concern in Norway. The ship was launched in 1939 in the Trondhjems Mekaniske Vaerksted shipyard. When Nazis invaded Norway in 1940, the ship was taken over for German wartime use. At the end of the war the British Ministry of War Transport took the Springfjord, eventually putting it back into service. The ship became the Empire Springfjord.

The Springjford was being loaded with coffee and cotton bales at Guatemala’s Pacific Ocean port of San Jose. U.S. Central Intelligence Agency officials, in connivance with American interests in Guatemala, set up an invasion of the country to depose elected President Jacobo Arbenz who they felt had leftist leanings. The CIA ordered the Springfjord attacked. A CIA pilot bombed the British merchant ship with napalm on June 27, 1954, setting it afire. The 289.3′ ship burned for several days before sinking. No arms were aboard the Springfjord. It was an innocent merchant vessel sunk in a U.S. coup to place a military dictator in power in Guatemala.

“The plastic bottle is gone,” Oscar said as we got to the wreck site. No landmarks were clear. We were well offshore and there was a haze from burning sugar cane. Oscar maneuvered his boat carefully using GPS, then told his brother Marcos to throw the anchor over. Both brothers are divers and spearfishermen. Marcos put on one of the tanks. His BC didn’t have its inflator hose and had seen many too many dives. Marcos lifted the tank over his head and was overside with his speargun to check the anchor and be sure we were on the wreck.

We got our gear on. We didn’t have long to wait. Marcos came back aboard with a large red snapper on his spear. The Pacific Ocean was 84 F. While we didn’t need wetsuits to stay warm they afforded protection from hooks, nets, sharp objects on the wreck as well as jellyfish in the water. We rolled backwards and descended the anchor line. 

Visibility was about five feet. The shipwreck was teeming with fish. Snook were everywhere. Guatemalans call them Robalo, a delicacy when properly prepared. Marcos descended with us and was immediately at work spearing Robalo. Goliath groupers also inhabit the wreck that was covered with masses of torn fishing nets and lines. 

With limited visibility it took time to get oriented. I swam toward the stern where Marcos pointed out the propeller. As I swam back amidships I saw the top of an object barely visible in the silt. I fanned it and discovered a dish cover. I made out writing on the cover as soon as I lifted it clear of the silt. “Salvador Railway Co. Ltd., Steamship Division.” I put the cover into the pocket of my BC and continued to photograph the wreck.

I was glad to have my SeaLife 1400 underwater camera. Its light gathering properties, with the 16 mm wide angle lens, enabled me to work close and take pictures even in limited visibility with a lot of particulate matter in suspension. The Pacific in this area is very rich in nutrients that decrease visibility. Rivers also run into the ocean bringing silt.

I returned to the anchor line and headed toward the surface. Roberto was already at his decompression stop with Stuart Scrugi, cameraman from Ruta Verde. Roberto had a large brass porthole hanging from a lift bag as well as Robalo he speared below. I photographed the divers as they moved from the anchor line to the decompression tank hanging beneath the dive boat.

The water was warm and the ocean calm. I remained on the anchor line anticipating dolphin or whales, even hoping billfish would swim by. Sightings are common in these waters. I surfaced and handed my SeaLife camera and gear up to Oscar. I told them to take special care with my tank since I had the porcelain dish cover in the BC pocket. Everyone aboard was anxious to see it when I got into the boat.

Our next dive was on the wreck of an unidentified ship that was deliberately sunk by its captain in about 86′ of water. Local fishermen simply call it ‘El Chino,’ because it carried a large number of Korean illegal immigrants that were put ashore on Guatemala. The captain scuttled his ship to prevent authorities from sending the Koreans back in it.

The shipwreck is a ‘trava,’ or trap, to local fishermen. They snag their nets and lines on it. Shallower than the first wreck, the vessel was a tangle of cables and pipes. Fishing nets and fishing lines crisscrossed the shipwreck. This vessel too abounded with fish. It was like a subway terminal at rush hour. Large Robalo and groupers swam in every direction across the decks. 

I photographed Marcos and Roberto spearing large fish, took pictures of the shipwreck and surfaced without finding anything that would help identify the vessel. Visibility was five feet or less so it was difficult to get oriented on the large freighter.

We returned to Las Lisas and put our gear in Roberto’s four door pick-up. We had to head back the way we came to get to Puerto Quetzal and the little village of Buena Vista. We would stay in the beautiful Pacific Fins sport fishing resort. Pacific Fins is a modern hotel with only five rooms. Each room has two king sized beds, powerful air conditioning, if wanted, and spacious, modern bathrooms.

We stowed our gear in the room and headed for the swimming pool. It was a refreshing way to end a perfect diving day. Poolside waiters brought shrimp and sushi appetizers and served drinks. Pacific Fins is an all-inclusive resort. Staff are friendly and very capable.

At dinner we were met by Pacific Fins’ owner Niels Erichsen and joined by Ruta Verde’s chief producer and director Carlos Gereda. Niels suggested fresh caught fish for dinner. The fish came out of the kitchen perfectly baked, steamed and grilled to satisfy every taste.

Niels discussed our excursion aboard one of his five sport fishing boats the next morning. Niels’ father is Danish, his mother Guatemalan. His English is perfect as is the English of his staff and Captains. We planned to film at sunrise so it was an early night. The beds were comfortable and welcome respite after a very early start the day before.

The sun came up over the horizon. Carlos and Stuart were already set up and filming on the dock. We ordered breakfast at the open air restaurant. Breakfasts in Guatemala are complete with amazing tropical fruits, beans and fried bananas. I had fresh squeezed mango juice, savory coffee from Guatemala’s mountains and eggs. 

We loaded our dive gear and cameras. Captain Nestor Garcia and his crew helped get us settled aboard ‘Maverick,’ a 32′ Flagfin powered by two 3208 Caterpillar diesel engines. We would head out 44 miles offshore to where sailfish were running. Niels told us that Guatemala is the sailfish capital of the world. They practice catch and release with a tracking system in cooperation with University of Miami researchers. Niels, through catch and release, is developing a major sport fishing following with a largely American and European clientele. We cruised at 22 knots over a calm Pacific Ocean.

Captain Garcia was in radio communication with other fishing vessels. “There are dolphins,” he informed us. As we approached the fishing grounds, where the depth was 2,012′, spinner dolphins performed their high flying circus acts for us. They swam in the bow wave, dropped back and swam in the stern wake, jumped, twirled, cavorted and put on a spectacular show.

Captain Garcia spotted a log in the ocean. A sea bird was squatting on it. He had his crew put out rigs to catch dorado (dolphin or mahi mahi) and tuna. It didn’t take long before the poles saw action. With two tuna and a dorado aboard the captain set the poles for sailfish.

A fish was hooked within five minutes. The sailfish jumped and played on the hook. It was eased alongside the boat. I jumped in with my camera to document the event as Ruta Verde filmed. As the large sailfish was brought toward the boat I took its picture. When the crew released it, the tired fish obliged for some pictures then slowly settled down into the deep blue ocean to rest and go back about its life.

Another sailfish was hooked in good order. This time Roberto jumped into the ocean when the fish was about to be released. He put on gloves and took the fish gently from a crewman. Roberto held the big fish by its bill and supported it behind its mouth. Roberto finned with the fish, its mouth open, aerating its gills. The sailfish sensed it was meant no harm and didn’t struggle. It swam along with Roberto until he released it. The big fish gently settled into the deep ocean until it disappeared out of sight.

On our way back the crew prepared sushi from the fresh catch. They cooked rice and chicken and prepared a hot fish dish with savory sauces. It was a perfect way to relax after a day filled with action.

Diving Guatemala’s Pacific Ocean is exciting. While the Atlantic side is much clearer and offers all the beauty of Caribbean reefs, Pacific diving has no equal for large fish. The infrastructure is excellent. Now with good roads and the new Pope Benedict Bridge, driving from the capitol is easy. From shipwrecks to sailfish, an exciting adventure awaits in the heart of the Mayan world.

CONTACT INFORMATION: For information about diving in Guatemala contact Pana Divers, phone 502-2416-3300. For deep sea fishing contact Pacific Fins Resort at 1-888-700-3467 or 502-7881-4788 or visit their website at www.pacificfins.com.gt.

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