BONAIRE - May, 2010

(Click here to see the pictures from this trip.)

See the 4½-minute video slide show on YouTube (have your speakers on):

What’s NOT to like about Bonaire? The diving’s very good and reliable, it’s relatively easy to get to, it’s not all that expensive, and they speak English. 2010 marked our seventh trip to Bonaire staying at Buddy Dive, one of the larger operations on Bonaire and our resort of choice for many years now.

We had a nice-sized group of eight this year, consisting of Di Krall, Sophie Lappas, Deborah Michaels, Beth Clemenson, Pat O’Brien, Tamar Toister, Susan Oder, and me (Ken Kurtis). We arrived in Bonaire by every possible air flight. Four of us came in on the early-morning (5AM) Continental flight from Houston, two came mid-afternoon (2PM) on Delta from Atlanta, and two came in the evening (7PM) on Insel Air from Miami. There are advantages and disadvantages to each.

The Continental flight certainly gives you all day Saturday to dive. But you leave L.A. at 5PM, travel all night, and - if you’re like me and can’t really sleep on planes - you arrive dead-tired. But water and diving have a wonderful rejuvenating power and we completed our first dive before Noon.

The Delta flight’s always been my preference but it was simply too expensive when we went to ticket this time ($500 more than Continental). But you leave LA at Midnight, get in to Bonaire in the afternoon, still have time to check in to the hotel and get settled, and a good night’s sleep should re-set your body clock and make you good-to-go first thing Sunday morning.

The Insel flight is a new option and both our people who took it originated in Miami. I’m not sure if anyone partners with them, but you could easily connect with Insel via an early-morning American Airlines nonstop into Miami. The Insel flight was relatively cheap - $238 round-trip - but that may have been a special deal.

Back to Continental, the other disadvantage of this flight is that, since they haven’t really had time to service the rooms of those who just checked out of the resort, you arrive at Buddy’s at 6AM and you might find that your room isn’t ready. This situation is always better to deal with when you’re part of a group, because odds are if you have multiple rooms, at least one of them will be available. That was the case with us.

And we LOVED the rooms we had this year.

A few years ago, Buddy acquired the adjacent Lion’s Den property, which is the side we on this year, in two 2-bedroom ground-floor apartments. Each unit has an enormous open room that serves as living room, entertainment area (small TV with cable), full kitchen with refrigerator & stove, and dining area. That opens out on to a nice-sized covered patio. Each bedroom has direct access to the living room and came equipped with two twin beds (no couples on this trip but you can get queen or king-size beds as well). Both bedrooms have their own bathroom and one bedroom has an additional kitchen and back door on it, so that it can be rented out as a one-bedroom if needed. Put all together, it was ample room, especially when you add in space required for cameras, laptops, stray gear, and the like and we were delighted. The specific rooms we had were 601/602 and 603/604. Other rooms on the Lion’s Den side seem to have the same layout.

One of the things we’ve always liked about Buddy’s is the efficiency and logistics of the dive operation, run by good friend Augusto Montbrun. They’ve got a large and attentive staff, there are always plenty of tanks available, there’s a large gear storage area right on the dock (so you don’t have to schlep dive gear back to your room), the boats are easy to sign up for and well-posted, and the whole thing runs amazingly well.

When you dive on your own, you simply sign up for boats on a day-to-day basis, usually 24 hours ahead of time. But as a group, we have an advantage in that I can usually arrange ahead of time with Augusto to have our own boat. That was the case this year as we did all of our diving fro Bayena, one of their smaller boats but perfect for a group our size. The only day we didn’t do that was when we did their new Washington-Slagbaai 3-tank dive on their brand new large boat, Buddy Dive, and on that day, we shared the boat with others. More on that later.

We always book what they call the “Dive & Drive” package which includes your room, full breakfast daily, a 50% discount on other meals at Buddy’s (max $75 off), all diving, and a vehicle. Although you can enjoy Bonaire without a vehicle, it’s advantageous to have one because you can opt to drive into town, tour the island, or hit other shore-based spots.

Buddy has a huge rental fleet which they’ve just recently upgraded. The newer vehicles are Mitsubishi trucks and the older ones are Toyota trucks. (All are stick-shift.) Try to make sure you get one of the Mitsubishis. The Toyotas have seen better days and the air-conditioning in most of them is not the best. We started with a Toyota which I turned back in for the newer Mitsubishi. That was a good trade. And we ended up driving over 100 miles during the course of the week, so the truck was a good thing to have.

Speaking of trucks, a quick word about crime in Bonaire. Every time I read about Bonaire, especially things written on the Internet, it makes it sound like the place is a hotbed for car burglaries and that every day, cars are broken into and things are stolen. Nonsense.

Bonaire has certainly, from what I’ve been told, had it’s share of these things in the past. But during our time here, I didn’t hear of one car being broken into or anything being stolen. I’m not saying it doesn’t happen but you’re advised not to leave valuables in the car, leave the windows down and the doors unlocked, and all will be well. And in all the trips I’ve made to Bonaire, I’ve personally never experienced a crime or heard of anything being stolen while I was there. So I think, simply based on my experience, that this is a bad rap that Bonaire gets.

(In all fairness, I must confess that I’ve got a friend who was there with her husband for a week and had their hotel room broken into on their last night in Bonaire and had camera gear and computers stolen. But it sounds like she may have been specifically targeted since the theft happened late on a Friday night while they were out to dinner and they were leaving on a 7:30AM Saturday flight. They also think it might have been a hotel employee since their room was locked and it appeared a key was used for entry. But that’s the exception, not the rule.)

Having the truck (one for each room so we had two trucks for eight people) gave us mobility and enabled us to dive some of the shore sites Bonaire is so famous for. Over the course of the week, we went to Alice in Wonderland, Andrea II, and Jeannie’s Glory.

Jeannie’s was a new one for us. It’s just north of the Salt Pier. That’s important because you are no longer permitted to dive the Salt Pier without a guide (allegedly for "security" reasons) which also means you’re going to pay $35/head for the privilege of doing it. Salt Pier is a fantastic dive, but I didn’t feel like shelling out $35 for it.

So we dove Jeannie’s instead, kicked out to the reef dropoff, and turned south (reef left). Jeannie’s in and of itself is a lush, lovely dive. And it just so happened that our turning point of the dive was the north end of the Salt Pier, where we found four Tarpon, a couple of Barracudas, many schools of Grunts and Snappers, and a host of other fish. So we sort of got the best of both worlds, albeit the latter slightly on the sly.

Much as we like the shore sites, don’t ever forget that many of the reefs off of the hotels are also excellent sites. Just because it’s easily accessible doesn’t mean it’s not any good. Buddy’s Reef is an excellent dive, as is Bari Reef (adjacent to the south off of Sand Dollar), and Scientifico/Captain Don’s (adjacent to the north of Buddy’s Reef). So you’ve got a stretch of maybe 400 yards of simply excellent diving, with Buddy’s Reef being smack dab in the middle.

We did a dusk shore dive at Buddy’s almost every day. (This was a group that preferred dive & dine rather than doing a true night dive after dinner.) The dusk dives, regardless of whether we went left or right, were always very good. But on Wednesday night, it was spectacular.

We seemingly caught the reef at just the right moment, during the afternoon “bite” when all the animals are trying to get in a final snack, or a final cleaning, or whatever before they settle in for the night.

We started the dive around 5:30PM (sunset was at 7PM each night) noticing that there was an ever-flowing river of Creole Wrasses, perhaps 8-10 abreast, flying and flitting with their pectoral fins, running from the south to the north at a depth of about 40 feet. It was like watching the 405. The stream of fish never seemed to end. I have no idea how many there were but 100,000 wouldn’t surprise me and it lasted throughout almost the entire dive. They just kept coming and coming and coming. And every now and then, a few of them would break out of the traffic to find some juvy Spanish Hogfish or other cleaner fish, go into the classic head-down/lips-out cleaning position (there's shot of this on the Picture Page), get a quick makeover, and then rejoined the flow.

On top of all of that, there were thousands and thousand of Scissortail Damsels darting about, many Parrotfish crunching on the reef, Arrow Crabs and small shrimp in the crevices, Bar Jacks on the prowl, Trumpetfish hanging vertically in the soft corals trying to look inconspicuous, and all sorts of activity. We could have done this dive alone and been happy campers. But to top it all off, on the kick back in over the shallows, we found a juvy French Angelfish (which I happen to think are especially cute and who is also represented on the Picture Page).

We topped it off the next night (Thursday) with a similar dive on the same reef (not quite as frantic as the night before) but where we encountered a not-usually-seen Midnight Parrotfish. These guys are generally enormous, probably the largest of the Parrotfish, and this particular one had to be four feet long. Usually they’re quite skittish and hard to approach but this one sort of hung with us for a while, crunched coral to his heart’s delight, and didn’t flee when approached slowly. (He's yet another guy you'll find on the Picture Page.)

And that brings up another good diving point. Note the last word is that last paragraph: SLOWLY.

As many of you know, I work as a volunteer diver at the Aquarium of the Pacific in Long Beach. We have close interaction with most of the animals on a daily basis. The animals are (obviously) very accustomed to having divers around them. But even under those circumstances, we try to move SLOWLY so as not to spook the fish. And when we we’re teaching new volunteers feeding techniques, we not only emphasize SLOWLY but also show how just the way you move in the water can sometimes appear aggressive and threatening to an animal even though it doesn't seem that way to you.

That same advice and skill set can work wonders for you in the open ocean when you’re dealing with wild animals who are not always comfortable seeing divers. If you move slowly and in a non-threatening manner, you’ll likely get much better animal experiences overall. And remember that things like making eye contact and staring may be perceived by the animal to be a threat, so a glance every now and then will let the animal get accustomed to you, which will generally work in your favor.

Be aware that the most disturbing thing you do is exhale. So do your best to contain your enthusiasm and exhale slowly (there’s that word again) and gently. I will even at times (perish the thought) hold my breath when the animal and I are very close so as not to spook it.

This general technique worked out really well for us on our very last dive on the trip, at Nearest Point on Klein Bonaire. We had been in the water maybe ten minutes when dive guide Marianne pointed up high on the reef where there were three good-sized Squid hanging out. Needless to say, we moved in that direction.

One of our divers didn’t graduate from Slowly Class and she started to make a run at the squid, who promptly backed off. But a tug on her fin and a hand gesture (to slow down and stay put - not the other hand gesture you were thinking of) calmed the squid down and allowed them the opportunity to check us out. And in time, while we held out position, they moved in closer and closer because they were generally as curious about us as we were about them.

In an effort to entice them still closer, I tried something that had worked well with a captive Cuttlefish in the Sydney Aquarium in Australia. I stuck my arm out, and stretched my fingers out to mimic squid tentacles, and then started making motions with my finger/tentacles.

Now maybe I’m reading too much into this, but the squid definitely noticed. Because they started, cautiously, moving in closer to me. And then closer. They would approach me slightly from above and one of them even started to reach out with a tentacle to touch my mask. (And eventually, one of them did touch my finger.) Then they’d back off. Then they’d come back in. It was really magical to experience.

Eventually, it got so that the eight of us were in a loose circle and the squid were in the middle of us, just sort of going - cautiously - from diver to diver to see what these big loud things were. Eventually, they got tired of us (or maybe they had a meeting to go to) and they moved on. But we probably spent a total of 20 minutes with them and it was definitely a special experience for everyone. (And maybe even the squid too.)

So, one more time: SLOWLY. It’ll pay benefits for you no matter where you dive.

Before I got off on this tangent, I was talking about our Thursday dusk dive. Not only did we have the Midnight Parrotfish but we ended the dive with an encounter with a fairly large Green Turtle. Again, approaching slowly paid off for us as we were about to get very close and get a good look at the gorgeous shell these animals have.

Our general plan each day was two boat dives, lunch, an afternoon beach/shore dive (sometimes from the Buddy dock), and a dusk dive (always from the Buddy dock). I’ve always found the diving in Bonaire to be good, but not necessarily spectacular. But I think it was a bit better this year than in past years. Water temp hung around 82º, vis was 60-100 feet (though in some spots on a few occasions it dropped to 30 and got a little milky), the fish were plentiful, and the reefs were very healthy.

One slight problem they’re having, not of their own making, is with Lionfish. As you may have read, some Lionfish were released in Florida perhaps two year ago and they’ve been reproducing and spreading throughout the Caribbean. These are usually Indo-Pacific fish and one of the reasons it’s a problem is because Lionfish are voracious eaters and they have no known predators in the Caribbean. So they’re really doing ecological damage in some areas. Most islands have a Lionfish capture program in place. Bonaire seems to be very good at this and they’ve got a novel way to deal with the problem.

Everyone is asked to carry with them a special Lionfish marker. It’s a wine cork to which a long (3-4 feet) piece of brightly-colored ribbon has been attached. Wind the ribbon around the cork and stick it in your BC pocket. If you spot a Lionfish on a dive, you find a dead spot on the reef where you can tie off your ribbon, the cork floats it so it’s easily visible, note the site & depth, and report it to your divemaster, who will in turn report it to the Marine Park HQ. They will then come out, find the fish, and remove it from the reef.

In our dives, we only saw one Lionfish, and what I found to be very interesting (and maybe I’m reading too much in to this) is that he was tucked up inside a coral head. It almost seemed to me that he was hiding, like he knew people were out looking for him. When you see these guys in Indo-Pacific waters, they’re actually pretty bold and out in the open, so this seemed (to me) to be unusual behavior for the species.

The other thing that we were pretty excited about on this trip was doing the new Washington-Slagbaai National Park 3-tank dive. Buddy has had a brand new boat (called Dive Buddy) custom-built just for this purpose. The boat’s a catamaran and is listed as a 42-footer but it feels much larger/longer than that, which is a good thing. (My first guess was that it was around 75 feet long.) The boat can handle up to 24 divers and has 64 tank racks (by my count) plus plenty of room under the benches so it’s quite easy to have enough tanks on board for all the divers and the three DMs who go along.

Normally, Buddy’s boats don’t venture further north than Karpata, which is also where a restricted area starts. But with the speed of the new boat, plus the fact that it can be out all day, sites further north are now in range. Their general plan is for dive 1, snack, dive 2, lunch, dive 3, and head for home.

That’s the commercial. Now for a little bit of the reality. The dive and the boat were good, but not as good as I had hoped. There were a number of reasons for this, in no particular order.

We did the dive with 20 divers total, our 8 plus 12 others. The entire lower deck of the boat is dedicated to tanks, gear, camera, storage, and with 20 it was a little snug. Since we were doing three dives, just about every single tank on board was going to be used. And part of the problem was that everyone decided to stake out "their" three tanks right away so that affected space allocation. Not the end of the world but also not preferable.

The boat’s essentially two decks and the main deck is OK, but not great as a hanging-out spot. The flying bridge was better as it has some padded benches/seats but the ladder going up is a little awkward as it goes almost straight up (and has rather small steps) rather than being angled. And you can only seat about 10-12 people on the benches.

However, you can continue to walk forward and go out on what could be called the sundeck, which is the front half of the second deck. That was OK, especially on the ride north when everything was dry. But after the first dive, going up there with wet booties meant you had to step carefully because the fiberglass got awfully slippery when wet. I didn’t see anyone fall nor did I, but I’m willing to bet it’s going to happen if it hasn’t already.

I was also amazed that this boat wasn’t built with a head on it, especially given the fact that it’s designed to be a full-day boat. I realize that there are many who feel “The Ocean is My Toilet” is appropriate but you’d have thought with all the money they spent on the boat that a head (or two) would have been somewhere in the plans.

I was also a little disappointed in lunch. It consisted of a sandwich. Period. Don’t get me wrong, it was a nice sandwich. And you did get a choice of either salami or ham & cheese (and there were plenty of sandwiches - many people had two) and the sandwiches themselves were good-sized. But given that the standard price for this trip is $120, you’d think that they could throw in a bag of chips as well.

They also need to have some vegetarian sandwiches as well. One of the people on our boat got one because he had requested it ahead of time but his was the only veggie choice. Buddy should either make it clearer that you need to request veggie sandwiches ahead of time or they should just make up some each day as a matter of course.

Drinks were a minor issue. There was a jug of water and a jug of juice. No problem. And at “lunch” it was announced that there was also a bucket of soft drinks. It was only when you went to grab one that they added that you should write your name and room number down and it would be added to your bill at the end of the week. Again, given the price they’re charging for the trip, this seems a little chintzy to me. Throw in the chips and soda. Make the trip $125 if you really have to. But don’t nickel-and-dime us to death.

There were three DMs on the trip which was good but I would have preferred a slightly different organization to the diving.

They had two DMs guide each dive with the third DM remaining on board as safety-diver/captain. No problem. But they took all 20 of us as one big group, with DM #1 at the head and DM #2 at the tail. It made for a very large and somewhat unwieldy group, as well as it took a while for everyone to get into the water so all could start at once. And if there was anything interesting found, you suddenly had a bunch of people - many with cameras - converging on the newly-found point of interest.

What would have been better (IMHO) would be to split the group in half and do two half-group dives. This would be easy to accomplish since the main deck where everyone gears, is split in half by a tank rack down the middle. Designate one side (max 12 divers) Group 1, gear them up, and have DM #1 take them. Once they’re gone, have Group 2 gear up, and DM #2 take them on the dive. It makes for smaller dive groups and wouldn’t extend the time at each dive site (due to the staggered entry times) by more than 10-15 minutes max.

The other thing that I wasn’t too crazy about was the actual entry area. It’s two small steps down from the main deck and not very big. It made it a bit clumsy (and you could only do one diver at a time) as people tried to put their fins on. And for a couple of folks (none in our group of course) who put their fins on at their tank station and then tried to slide/walk down to the entry point, it was awkward and borderline dangerous when they had to go down the small steps.

The diving itself was OK but not all that different from the other Bonaire sites we’ve experienced over the years. Other than the lionfish, we didn’t see anything that we don’t normally see at other places. They did mention to us that they’ve seem hammerheads on occasion but we didn’t get any on our dive.

We did have a great experience with a baitball of Boga (a type of bonnetmouth) that was being herded about by a number of Bar Jacks and a couple of Yellowtail Snappers. Very interesting to watch the interaction of the school and the predators.

Overall the verdict on the 3-tank Washington-Slagbaai dive was that it was good but I wouldn’t go out of my way to do it again if they kept the logistics as we experienced them. I think next time I’d be more inclined to try a Wild Side dive (unprotected side of the island - which Buddy’s now co-ordinates - used to be Larry’s Wild Side but apparently he’s sold it) for something different. The Washington-Slagbaai dive was good, it just wasn’t as good as we expected it to be.

But also, in their defense, Augusto and I have traded a couple of e-mails about this since our trip and I sent him the draft of this section of the report. He said he appreciates hearing my point of view on this (and from other trip leaders as well) and because this is new for them, it's still a work-in-progress. So you may find when you get down to Buddy's for this dive, that some of the concerns I've raised have already been addressed.

Nitpicking aside (and let me be clear - I really am able to be nit-picky because Buddy’s does such a good overall job), I think this was one of our best Bonaire trips in a the last few years. The vis was pretty good, the water was warm, the weather was good, we saw a lot of really cool things, had some unique encounters, enjoyed the rooms where we stayed, and everyone got along.

We’ll be going back. We’ll be staying at Buddy’s again. (In fact, I’ve already got four people who have committed to 2011.) The only questions is: Will YOU be joining us next time???

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