BONAIRE - JUNE, 2002

Itís hard NOT to say nice things about a dive destination that offers up a myriad of creatures, has great visibility (60-100í), has warm water (83ļ), easy shore access to dive sites, and literally letís you dive 24 hours a day. When you add in a great resort, friendly staff, and perfect weather, youíve got one heck of a nice vacation . . . and thatís just what we had June 1-8 in Bonaire.

Getting there isnít too tough. We flew Air Jamaica out of LAX to Montego Bay, and then straight into Bonaire, about eight hours of flying time overall. We were met at the airport by representatives of Buddy Dive Resort and off we went.

Buddy Dive was very nice and met all our expectations. The resort features 43 rooms and was perhaps half full. The rooms are spacious and well-appointed with each one having a bedroom, bathroom, kitchen, dining area, sitting area (with cable TV - essential for watching the Lakers/Sacramento and Stanley Cup games on ESPN International), and patio (upper rooms have a balcony). The grounds are very nice with a lounging pool, a lap pool, a poolside bar, dive shop, restaurant, pier with gear storage, and a "drive-in" air station making it a breeze to get tanks for shore dives.

Another nice feature about Buddy is that they have their own fleet of rental vehicles (essential to getting the full flavor of Bonaire) which you pick up when you check into your room. Although the majority of the vehicles are Toyota pick-ups (many with wooden tank racks), there are also some large vans and we were able to secure one of each.

A lot has been written over the past few years about the problems with theft from parked vehicles in Bonaire while divers were off diving. There are even signs inside just about every rental vehicle on the island warning you to leave the windows rolled down and the doors unlocked and to take your valuables with you. (They make a big point of saying that all establishments in Bonaire accept wet money.)

All I can say is that during our week on the island (and we made plenty of shore dives) we didnít experience a break-in or see any "suspicious" characters, nor did we hear of anyone else having any problems. In talking with the locals, it would seem that this is a minor problem thatís gotten way more attention than it deserves. And while the break-ins may have been more prevalent in the past, the "windows-down" policy probably helps curb the problem since it eliminates the target.

The general plan for our group was to do morning boat dives, afternoon shore dives, and night dives each evening from the Buddy pier. (The siteís appropriately called "Buddy Reef.") Buddy runs three boat dives daily - at 8:30AM, 10:30AM, and 2:15PM. With this schedule, it was easy for us to have breakfast (included with the dive package - a nice buffet starting at 7AM each morning in the Dock of the Bay restaurant), do a 2-tank morning dive (8:30 & 10:30), have time for lunch (we made a lot of runs downtown to the local Subway), do afternoon shore dives, take a break for dinner, and then plop in for a night dive.

Buddy has plenty of tanks (both air and nitrox are available - extra charge for the nitrox) for boat and shore diving, easily a couple of hundred for each, and theyíre constantly filling their tanks. All the tanks are aluminum, and available in 80cf sizes as well as 63cf (and I even saw a couple of 53cf tanks). Finding a full tank was never a problem at Buddy.

The Buddy boat dives were nicely run. Each boat has a Instructor/DM and a Captain. The Captain - once on-site - helps with gear donning and stays on board as the safety person, while the Instructor/DM does a semi-guided dive. I use the word "semi" because while they were happy to have you stay alongside them, they also werenít too concerned if you wandered off on your own or fell behind the group (as photographers are notorious for doing). The only restrictions they put on you were a total bottom time of one hour and a suggested (but not enforced) depth limit of 100í for the first dive, and 70-80í for the second dive.

Shore diving in Bonaire is legendarily easy. There are 60 marked sites on the island (plus another 26 on Klein Bonaire which are only accessible by boat) and to find them, you simply drive along the perimeter road and look for two yellow stone markers which give you the name of the site and mark the parking area. Just off-shore (never more than 50 yards), youíll notice a mooring buoy (the same one the boats use for a particular spot), and the M.O. is to enter, swim out towards the buoy, drop down, and then either go left or right as you go down the reef face. Currents were pretty much non-existent. Maps of the sites are available all over the island and downloadable from various Internet sites.

The closest thing to a negative we can say about Bonaire is that thereís a similarity from site to site. If you look at things in large geographical terms, the sites at Klein are somewhat different than the main island Bonaire sites, and the northern Bonaire sites are somewhat different than the southern sites. But thereís certainly a sameness that creeps into the reef structure no matter where you are.

Now the good side of all this is that you can expect to see just about anything on just about any reef. In fact, on a dive we did at Oil Slick Leap (#17), we saw the most enormous blue-spotted coronetfish that Iíve ever seen in my life. Even the dive guide (Murph) was impressed as this thing was easily 5í long, and probably closer to 6í. And, probably because of his size, he seemed totally unspooked by divers and just gave us a glance as if to say, "Yeah? So whatís YOUR problem???" and went about his business.

On that same dive, I found a bunch of tiny Pederson cleaner shrimp inside a host anemone. And that illustrates the allure of Bonaire. On the same dive you can see a really cool big thing and some really cool small things.

A word of caution is that Bonaire is primarily known as a great place for medium-to-small critters ("Macro Heaven" is a term Iíve heard used) but if itís big animals youíre looking for like sharks, manta rays, or whale sharks, this probably isnít the place for you. But that doesnít mean there arenít fabulous things to be seen.

A partial list of the species we encountered included frogfish, seahorses, sharptail eels, schoolmasters, trunkfish, spotted drums (pretty much the "national fish" of Bonaire - theyíre all over the place), arrow crabs, jewel morays, tarpon (especially at night), parrotfish, flamingo tongues, lobster, scrawled filefish, peacock flounder, butterflies and angels of all varieties and description, lizardfish, goatfish, octopus, white-spotted morays (many times hunting at night - more on that in a moment), bristle worms, groupers, squid, orange-spotted filefish, white-spotted triggerfish, rock beauties, scorpionfish, gobies, blennies, and a whole bunch more.

I was also very pleased to see that the coral was in very good shape, and seems to have recovered well from the battering it took from Hurricane Lenny in November of 1999. From the shoreline out to the reef shoulder (about 30í depth) itís somewhat broken up but thatís also my recollection of pre-Lenny Bonaire. But once you hit the main parts of the reef, I thought everything looked in great shape and Iím still awed by the enormous softer corals that grow in Bonaire, as well as the enormous mounds the hard corals form, not to mention the size of the sponges (lots of orange elephant-ear ones).

Night diving in Bonaire is always special. Not only is it just fun to go at night, but in Bonaire you can almost always count on at least one tarpon accompanying you on the dive, hunting for prey in the glow of the edge of your dive light. We were picking up snappers with regularity too. And it was quite fascinating to watch them all nose into every nook and cranny to see what was available for dinner that evening.

But I also noticed something that Iíd observed previously in Bonaire. When any of the animals chose to make a strike, if they were not successful on the first hit, they didnít make a second attempt at the same fish but moved on, sometimes leaving a wounded fish (and an easy target I would assume) behind. I noticed this on numerous occasions and even one time watched an eel stalk a parrotfish, make a hit, the parrotfish wriggled free, and the eel moved on, even though the parrotfish - with ragged flesh hanging from the bite wounds - was only a foot away and seemed in a sate of shock and easy pickings.

Probably the most dramatic of the night encounters came on our last night dive when Jim Cooper and I spent almost 20 minutes following a very unsuccessful white-spotted moray eel who didnít make a single successful strike. We gave up on him and moseyed on but towards the end of the dive, I spotted another (but larger) white-spotted eel searching for a meal.

As I followed him, I noticed he was heading for a "sleeping" parrotfish. I had observed other eels come close to parrots before but had only seen one strike. This guy cruised in slowly and basically had his nose right in the middle of the parrotfishís body. Just as I was thinking to myself, "This is going to be interesting . . ." I heard a "Bam!!!!" and saw sand fly as the eel made his strike.

The eel quickly wrapped itself in a knot around the parrotfish and dragged it under a small piece of coral. Sand continued to fly. Through gaps in the sand and an opening in the coral, I could see parts of the life-and-death struggle going in.

After about two minutes, things seemed to calm down and I could see the eel emerging . . . only this time the tail of the poor parrotfish was hanging out of the eelís mouth. He had swallowed his prey head-first and whole. In fact, as the eel fully emerged, I could see the outline of the parrotfish bulging through the eelís body behind the eelís head. Simply amazing and a pretty cool experience for me and the eel (but not so good for the parrotfish).

The other thing about Bonaire is that if you mention "night dive," it will invariably be followed by "Town Pier." I have heard the Town Pier billed as one of the greatest macro dives in the world as well as one of the greatest night dives ever but I have avoided it like the plague in previous trips to Bonaire because it always seemed to attract literally scores of divers and Iíve always felt that was simply too many divers to put into such a small area to have an enjoyable dive.

But . . . my group was really hot-to-trot to do this dive and the folks at Buddy told us we were the only ones signed up so far for that day (Bonaire regulations mandate that you do this dive only with a local guide) so we committed to it in the morning.

When it came time to assemble at Buddy for the evening pre-dive briefing, our group had grown to about 20 (plus 5 snorkelers). When we got to the Pier, there were four or five other similar-sized groups there as well. (See, sometimes I really DO know what Iím talking about . . .)

Despite the crowd, we had a nice dive although my logbook notes say, "World-class??? World-class crowded, yes. Pleasant but not spectacular." We saw more bristle worms than Iíve ever seen in one location before, had tons of arrow crabs walking around, found some of the tiniest juvy spotted drums weíd ever seen, and found the requisite seahorse.

But we were also banged into by other divers, blinded by other lights, had shots ruined due to sand being kicked up by others, had some fish spooked as other divers approached . . . sort of comes with the territory if youíre going to do this dive. (Although I would suggest that if you can arrange a post-10PM dive, the crowd should be gone by then and the parking will be easier.)

What I thought was a more interesting dive was at the Salt Pier (#46) which we did as a day dive. And maybe my post-dive enthusiasm is because I wasnít expecting too much. When we started the dive, we could see the bottom was littered with debris and machinery from the Salt Pier (still a working pier for the Cargill Salt Works). But after one hour, I was quite reluctant to leave the water, even though Iíd shot through my entire roll of film already.

Part of the allure here was that the pilings of the pier are long and spindly and give a really nice visual. And theyíre spaced fairly far apart so itís a very open area that attracts tons of fish, including small schools that weave to and fro. My notes say, "What started out as a ho-hum dive became amazingly interesting. Almost a garbage reef, yet life thrives." I could have spent another hour there and not been bored.

Suffice it to say, this was a fabulous trip. In the course of the week, we did 27 dives, each almost an hour long (and a few longer). And thereís no question that weíll go back again and weíll be happy to use Buddy Dive Resort again. Bonaire offers very easy diving for divers of all skill levels. The whole place is geared to diving (even the license plates say "Diverís Paradise"), thereís plenty of fish, the reefs are in great shape, itís easy to get to, the weatherís pretty reliable, itís relatively cheap, and . . . they speak English. Whatís not to like?

All in all Bonaire is one of those places that should be on your "must-dive" list and chances are that if you go once, youíll fall in love and go back again and again. Next up for Reef Seekers: Yap & Palau August 5-19 and the Sea of Cortez on the Don Jose October 13-20.


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