Diving Bonaire (July 2002)

Bonaire. Billed as “the diver’s paradise.” It even says so on their license plates.

The advance reviews are irresistible. Of places in the Caribbean/Atlantic, Rodale’s ranks Bonaire…

…3rd for best dive destinations

…5th for best value

…1st for best fish life

…5th for best viz

…2nd for best macro life

…1st for best shore diving

…2nd for best underwater photography

Our flight from Tampa through Puerto Rico to Bonaire takes us about 5 hours. Our plane arrives late at night-frustrating because it is my first visit to this exotic land, and I am unable to see what it looks like. Almost unbearable. Overnight, the exotic enchantment of Bonaire remains cloaked in mystery.

It is a group of about 10 of us from various origins in the U.S. First stop is dinner. I suggest the “Old Inn,” as I notice the restaurant has an outdoor café-presumably perfect for soaking in the gentle, warm breezes of the Bonaire ambiance. Not only does the café provide the pleasant experience I had hoped for, but the tropical food we are served is sumptuous. We stay at the Plaza Resort, a relatively new and very high-quality Bonaire resort.

First morning. First glimpse of Bonaire. An arid, largely undeveloped land that is covered with a coral “soil” and scraggly shrubs. It is somehow obvious that the island enjoys nearly perfectly sunny, breezy weather the entire year. We head for the dive shop. In an effort to protect its healthy reefs (reefs that provide the economic lifeblood of this small island, as 75 percent of the visitors to Bonaire are there to enjoy the reefs), Bonaire requires all arriving divers to take part in a “check-out” dive to assure divers that their equipment and buoyancy are okay. Problems with either can increase the chances that a diver will damage the prized reefs. In our week of diving Bonaire, it becomes apparent that this policy is paying dividends. The Bonaire reefs are the most healthy I have ever seen. Bonaire is graced with 78 named boat dive sites.

The entire 121-square-mile island is ringed with a dense reef system. On the leeward side, these reefs are in calm, clear water. The reefs are home to almost 300 species of fish, and contains six of the ten most diverse dive sites in the Caribbean.

Our check-out dive is at Eighth Palm. We enjoy 60-foot visibility and are thrilled to come upon a school of squid during our little dive. For our next dive on our first day, we go to Captain Don’s Reef. Here, the reefs are superbly healthy. We spot octopus, seahorse, and lots of parrot fish. And it what was to become a trademark during our week of diving Bonaire, we are treated with thick clouds of small, vibrantly colorful tropical fish engaged in synchronized swimming (all 500 of them dart back and forth in a precisely unified manner).

We quickly learn the truism about Bonaire being a “diver’s paradise.” Here, the diving cannot conceivably be easier. The dive shop for our resort sits a few feet from the docked dive boats. Our dive equipment is stored in lockers next to the dive boat overnight. The locker room contains hangers for wet wetsuits and a freshwater tank to wash gear. A dry erase board sits next to the shop where you can sign up for any of the multiple dive boats going out the next day. If the freedom of shore diving on your own is more appealing than a dive boat, you are able to find scuba tanks waiting for you 24 hours a day. The tanks can simply be loaded into your vehicle for you to drive off to any of the seemingly countless number of fantastic, signed (with painted rocks) shore dives ringing the island-anytime, day or night. Bonaire invites you to customize your diving to your hearts’ content. Most dive packages provide you with unlimited tanks for shore dives. It is a form of complete dive freedom in Bonaire. And if the thought of driving to a shore dive is unappealing, there are tanks placed within walking distance from some of the dive sites.

Our final dive on our first dive is a shore dive on our own: a night dive at Eighth Palm. During our dive, we discover that briefly turning off our lights during the dive gave us the surreal experience of seeing phosphorescent particles of light sprayed from the ends of the fins of the diver in front of you (some form of marine life was creating this effect). Stunning. During this dive, we see large crabs, eel, and octopus.

Day two. Dive boat to the Jeff Davis Memorial Reef, followed by a dive at Cliff Reef. Here, we see two ENORMOUS puffer fish, a large moray eel swimming lazily in front of us, and then this: an extremely unusual, exotic looking yellow-spotted moray eel. Our dive concludes with our coming upon the Malanchara Wreck, where we see a great many jet-black sea urchins with their long, spiny needles-particularly stunning in the high-visibility waters of Bonaire.

On this night, we leap into one of the most incredible, indescribable dives I ever experience in my life: The Town Pier Night Dive. Our dive master, who we are to follow under the pier during our dive, has a blinking white light on his tank, which turns out to be extremely fortunate for me later in the dive.

Words cannot describe this dive, but I will do my best: It is the sensation of floating weightlessly as you glide and weave through a bright orange Dr. Seuss forest of trees while hallucinating on LSD. The concrete piers supporting the Town Pier are covered with a frothy bright orange soft sponge coral (orange cup coral), and seem like large tree trunks.

Adding to the effect is that there are a number of other divers under the pier at the same time. Everywhere you look, there are beams of white light in this orange forest. A “Star Wars” effect is created. When will Darth Vader appear?

Most all of the “orange tree trunks” contain long 4- to 6-foot tube coral jutting out in all directions like tentacles (yellow and purple tube sponges). We also observe lots of sea cucumber. Seahorses and huge spiders (Arrow Crab spiders) with enormous spindly legs are found on the orange trunks. A great many spotted drum fish. And trumpetfish.

I am enjoying the experience immensely. Then, terror strikes. Distracted by being within a wonderland, I take my eyes off of my dive group for a few seconds. To my horror, I realize, as I frantically look in all directions, that I am no longer able to see the blinking white light of the dive master. There seem to be hundreds of blinking white lights in all directions as numerous divers in other dive groups are under the pier shooting photos. For 10 minutes, I panic as I rotate and swim in circles, anxiously looking for that blinking white light and a recognizable dive fin of someone else in my group. “WHERE IS A FAMILIAR DIVER IN MY GROUP??? WHERE AM I??? HOW DID THE GROUP MOVE SO FAR FROM ME SO QUICKLY???” I am petrified as I quickly realize that I have no orientation whatsoever…no way of knowing which way to swim to get out from under the pier…no way of knowing if there is an air space between the pier underside and the water surface above. Even if I were to find my way out from under the pier, I realize that the others in the group may panic once they realize that I am no longer with them. The experience was, well, terrifying.

Miraculously, after 10 minutes of circling, I spot the familiar blinking light about 150 yards away. Immensely relieved, I swim to it and am overjoyed to find my group…a group which is oblivious to the sheer fear I just experienced.

Dinner that night is at the Mona Lisa restaurant in downtown Kralendijk-a harbor town. Outstanding. Wonderful ambience. Superb presentation of food arrangement on the dinner plates. Delicious seafood.

Dive boat trip the next morning takes us to the 1,000 Steps dive, so named because while there are only 68 steps to enter the dive site from shore, the steepness of the steps and your heavy dive gear makes it seem like 1,000 steps…

We discover that the reef we dive there also appears to be “step-like” in appearance, which apparently contributed to the name it was given. Again, we are regaled by colorful clouds of synchronized small fish.

Next dive is at Andrea One, where we find relatively poor visibility.

We finish the day with a shore dive at Margate Bay. A challenging, unusual entry since the “beach” consisted not of sand, but of razor-sharp coral shards.

That night, we went downtown to experience some of the Bonaire nightlife (photo above). I have a profoundly “small world” experience while standing on a narrow, festive downtown street. Half a world away from home in Florida, a good friend from home suddenly walks by. We are both startled to see each other, and we greet each other with a big laugh. Turns out that he owns land on Bonaire and often visits with his family. Wow.

Afterwards, we head for a nearby Kralendijk nightclub. Sample the Dutch beer. Are amused to observe “Dutch karaoke” being performed.

Crack of dawn on the next morning finds us boating to the Forest dive site. There, visibility is relatively good. I am mesmerized by what our dive group finds: a bright yellow Frog Fish. Perhaps the most unusual creature I have ever seen. It was so brightly yellow and so odd in appearance that I feel as if I am looking at a plastic toy. Later on this dive, we come across a monstrous moray eel. He (or she) is as thick as a telephone pole!

After Forest, we launch into Bonaventure, where we again see a large number of huge puffer fish.

That night is the Something Special night dive. We start out watching an impressive sunset from our dive boat. Here, at this dive, we run into several large spotted eel. And we are stunned by what comes next: There, in our flashlight beams, is a four-foot long tarpon!!! My eyes bulge out! I’ve NEVER swam alongside such a BIG fish! He swims with us for most of the dive, enjoying the fact that he/she is able to use our dive lights to gulp down a number of small fish lit up by our lights. We enjoy the symbiosis…

First thing Friday, it is time for me and my roommate to try out a non-dive activity on Bonaire: Renting bicycles for a ride around the island. Our first destination is Washington-Slagbaai National Park, which contains a shallow lake home to flocks of very flamboyant and very bright pink flamingos. The Park was formerly two large plantations handed over to the Government on the express condition that they may never be developed. We head for the northern shore, which is a place of desolation. Very rocky shores and very rough surf explains why. No diving on this side of the island. The “relaxing little bicycle ride” turns out to be a punishing, 20-mile, 5-hour ride. Mostly uphill. Quite painful for someone like me, who has grown accustomed to the Flatlands of Florida. All of the ride was under a hot, mid-day Bonaire sun.

We pass through the town of Ricon. Lots of ramshackle poverty. We find that the cactus, which grows throughout this arid, hot island, is used here as a form of “living picket fence.” The cactus used grows in orderly rows, making them well-suited to serve as screen fences. Only fences I’ve ever seen in the desert that need to be pruned occasionally.

We get back to our hotel-exhausted. Sweat is pouring off of my beet-red face and arms. And it is only 15 minutes until our afternoon boat dive.

I wolf down some peanut butter sandwiches and a pear.

Once in the water at Jerry’s Reef off Klein, however, I am rejuvenated in the relaxed weightlessness of the dive. Despite rain the night before, we enjoy 60-foot visibility. We see a large, lazy scorpion fish resting in a rock cavity. A turtle swims with us for a few minutes, as does a large barracuda.

“Disaster” strikes again. I discover that I’ve lost my credit card. I thoroughly search my room and my clothes. I go to all the places I’ve been on Bonaire asking for it: restaurants, dive shop, hotel lobby. Presuming it is lost or stolen, I call 3 credit agencies (at great expense due to long-distance rates) to place a “fraud alert.” On Friday afternoon, however, the crisis ends. A person in our dive group finds the card sitting in the parking lot next to our hotel room. It had been there overnight, undisturbed…

Saturday’s boat dive brings us to Rappel Reef. Very rough seas greet us, and bob our boat like a cork. Re-entry at the end of our dive was like riding a bucking bronco. At our next dive at Small Wall, one of the people in our dive group reaches a milestone: It is his 1,000th dive…

Near the end of that dive, I spot a large anchor at the bottom. Swimming to it, I find 4 squid swimming nearby. Two of the squid are paired (photo below). They float within inches of our masks, swimming forward and backwards. It becomes apparent to us, during the 15 minutes that we watched in fascination, that they were having sex. The smaller male would repeatedly insert a tentacle into the larger female. The female would then swim to the bottom and poke a crevasse with her tentacle-depositing eggs?

Here is a YouTube video of some of our Bonaire diving:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Z1EHAoVKwKU

A second YouTube video shows photos I and others shot on this dive trip: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-O0k-mHX_C0

Saturday’s grand finale finds us sunset dining at Richard’s, a waterfront restaurant. Very good seafood. It does not get any better than this!

By the end of each day, after doing our 3 daily dives, I feel complete exhaustion. Bonaire is a form of “Diving Death March.” Each morning I awake, I say to myself: “Do I have the energy to do ANOTHER dive?” But after the first boat dive each morning, I’m revved up to “Dive! Dive! Dive!

Bonaire has a national motto: “Unhurried…unforgettable.” I would add more: Simply spectacular.

There is, however, one down side to their “unhurried” character: I will not soon forget how unhurried they are, as I find that Bonaire has the SLOWEST airport check-in in the known galaxy. We arrive at the airport for a 6 am flight. We spend one long hour and 45 minutes (this is not a typo or an exaggeration) in a sweltering hot outdoor lobby with our heavy dive gear. The airport assigns ONE person to processing. For each passenger in our long line, he spends 10 minutes processing the ticket and goes to the separate “bag line” with you to tag your bags. Almost an intolerable experience. Unhurried…unforgettable…

Bonaire is a mere 50 miles north of Venezuela-almost a dive weight throw away. It is the closest I have ever been to South America, increasing the long-standing temptation I’ve had to sample that great, mysterious continent.

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Categories: 2001-2010, Caribbean, Diving | Tags: , | Leave a comment

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