BONAIRE - May, 2011

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

There’s an art to making the arrangements for a dive vacation. But the talent lies not so much in choosing the destination, but in everything that comes after that. Because once you choose a destination and a specific time frame, it’s the luck of the draw as to whether you picked a “good” week or a “bad” week. If the vis is 100 feet, your dive operator can’t take much credit for that. By the same token, if a hurricane roars through, you can’t place the blame on them either.

And while destination is certainly important, IMHO picking the right dive operator is a far more critical component of a good trip. In some places, you may only have a few from which to choose and it's well-known who the obvious choice is. But in a place like Bonaire, it seems like there are hundreds from which to select. Choose someone who’s not customer-oriented or who has other issues going on, and you can take a potentially great trip and turn it in to a miserable experience. (I suppose the same can be said for choosing the “right” trip leader.) On top of that, even after you’ve chosen the “right” dive operator, your relationship with them - or the relationship with them and your group leader - can also make the quality of the experience improve or decline.

All of that factors in to why we always choose to go with Buddy Dive resort whenever we go to Bonaire. We really like the place. They’re located in the middle of Bonaire, so north and south dives sites are equi-distant (and Klein Bonaire is literally across the channel), they’re got a great physical plant, and their staff - both on the dive side and the hotel side - do everything they can to meet your every need.

On the dive side, we have a fabulous relationship with Dive Operations Manager Augusto Montbrun. I love when I first see him because he greets me with “Welcome home.” And that sort of underscores the feeling there because staying at Buddy Dive DOES feel like coming home.

Augusto will go out of his way to accommodate our needs. He and I exchange frequent e-mails before a trip so he knows what to expect from our group and can left me know ahead of time any limitations they have so I can make the appropriate itinerary adjustments.

For this trip, we had a small group: Jim & Diana Cooper, Pat O’Brien, Ric Selber, Rachel Capoccia, Dana and (non-diver) Jonathan Rodda, and me. Some of Augusto’s smaller boats were not available but he arranged a special charter for us for three of the days, so we could have a boat to ourselves. And even on the days when we needed to sign up through the sign-in chalk board, he’d come find me and let me know right before he opened up a boat so we could have our pick.

The hotel staff was great too. Although they can’t guarantee specific rooms, they’ll do their best to accommodate requests. Because we LOVED the rooms we had last year (on the Lion’s Den side), I made a specific request to get those back again. And we did. I found out after we were there that there were times they were doing some room shuffling and someone changed our room and one of the front office staff said, “No!!! Change it back. He REALLY wants that room.”

Now the irony in all of this is that when we checked in to our rooms, it had been raining in Bonaire. In fact, it had rained a number of days the week prior to our arrival. So we entered our room and were getting settled in when we realized that there was a good half-inch of water on the floor in one of the bedrooms. We called housekeeping, they came right away and cleaned it up, and we thought that was that.

So imagine our surprise when we returned after breakfast (remember, we arrived in Bonaire at 5:30AM) and found the room re-flooded despite the fact that it hadn’t rained for 24 hours. Once again, housekeeping was called. Once again, they came quickly. But this time, we discovered that the problem was actually the two-bedroom apartment above us, which was TOTALLY flooded and that’s what was leaking down into our place. Turns out there was a leak in the roof and that’s what was causing the problem.

So they quickly said, “No worries, we have another unit just like this one we can move you into,” and that’s what we did. And it was terrific. The units on the Lion’s Den side are spacious two-bedroom units (they can also be blocked off into individual one-bedroom units) with a bathroom for each bedroom, and large living room, a dining area, a kitchen, a second kitchen off of the second bedroom, and two patios. Really nice, really roomy for the four of us in that unit, and a great choice.

I probably should explain what I mean by by “the Lion’s Den side”.

Buddy’s has been around for a long time and the property adjacent to them was called the Lion’s Den. A few years ago, Buddy’s bought Lion’s Den, carved a few pathways so you could easily walk from one to the other, and now operates the combined properties as a single entity under the name Buddy Dive Resort. The units on the original Buddy Dive side consists of 1-, 2-, and 3-bedroom apartments. The units on the Lion’s Den side are 2-bedroom units, but they can be configured to be side-by-side 1-bedrooms (with no access from one to the other).

On the original Buddy’s side, the units are air-conditioned, but only in the bedrooms. There’s no AC in the living room or dining room areas. But one advantage of staying on the Lion’s Den side is that there’s AC throughout. Each bedroom has it’s own individual control, plus there’s another unit that takes care of the living/dining room area. So, especially in a humid climate like Bonaire, you can really get the entire place comfortable.

But the aforementioned rain did add one level of discomfort that even the staff at Buddy’s couldn’t counteract: mosquitoes. We got eaten alive. We’ve all got numerous red bumps from multiple mosquito bites. It was more of a problem at night than during the day but we all started getting bitten pretty quickly. No big deal and nothing anyone can do about it, but if you’re heading down to Bonaire anytime soon, take some bug spray with you.

Other than that, conditions were really good the week we were there. The weather was fairly good, ranging from partly cloudy to mostly sunny each day. Daytime highs were in the mid-to-upper 80s and the nighttime lows in the mid-70s (but fairly humid both day and night). Water temps on my gauge ranged from 81-83º and the visibility was generally outstanding, frequently in excess of 100 feet.

In fact, one thing I noticed this year was that there was not as much particulate in the water as I’ve noticed in years past. That greatly helps improve the visibility because you’re not now looking through a layer of haze.

But the other thing we noticed this year that was a change from previous years is not necessarily a good thing: Lionfish. They’re all over the place now where last year we only saw one or two. The fear is that, since they’re a non-native species with no known natural predators, that they will eventually decimate the reefs by eating the small fish and then working their way up the food chain.

Last year, there was an active Lionfish eradication program (as there is many other Caribbean areas). But this year, they've pretty much given up on that, although they do try to get them every now and then. But it seems to be one of those things where, as the saying from Jurassic Park put it so well (Jeff Goldblum’s character), “Nature finds a way.”

And while we didn’t see Lionfish on every dive, we saw them on many dives, sometimes multiple lionfish over the course of a dive. And while they are beautiful, they can be destructive. But part of me wonders what the difference is between the Lionfish population in the Pacific, where they thrive, and the population in the Caribbean. Wouldn’t they be just as destructive in the Pacific as it’s feared they will be in the Caribbean? And won’t natural selection eventually help nature find a balance in the Caribbean? I’m still personally a little bothered by the kill-all-the-Lionfish plans in many places. Too often in the past, man has tried to control nature with disastrous results. And sometimes, I think we just need to let nature find its way. It’ll be interesting to see what the situation in Bonaire is a few years from now.

The situation for seahorses and frogfish is that they’re apparently not as plentiful as they have been in years past. (And I don't think this has anything to do with the Lionfish.) There’s no question they move around a bit so it’s possible that this is simply a case of not finding them. But all the guides were telling us that some of their usual “little friends” were not in their usual locations. During the entire week, we only saw one seahorse and one frogfish (both found by dive guide Murph).

The frogfish was REALLY cool. He was grayish in color and was sitting in the crook of an orange-ish sponge. There were a lot of small gobies in the area and he was patiently waiting for them to come close. In fact, Murph asked us not to linger too long in the area lest we scare off his source of food. It was fascinating watching him deploy his lure, wiggling it back and forth trying to entice one of the little fish close enough to strike. We didn’t see him even make an attempt but he was opening and closing his mouth occasionally, and even at one point even appeared to yawn. (You can see this photo on our Picture Page for this trip.) But he definitely seemed to be keeping his eyes out for a potential snack.

There was an awful lot of cleaning going on during this trip. Maybe it’s just that I didn’t notice it before or maybe I simply got more attuned to looking for it this time, but it seemed like every time we turned around, there were numerous fish going into the traditional head-down “please-clean-me-now” position, or they had their mouths open and their gills flared.

Bonaire is well-known for having almost all of their dive sites (except for the ones on Klein accessible both by boat and shore. So there’s an awful lot of shore diving that goes on where you literally pull up to a dive site (all marked by a pair of yellow stones with the site name written on the stone), get out of the car, put on your gear, walk into the water, and start diving.

I’ve always divided those shores dives into two categories: “travel” dives where we get in the car and go someplace other than the Buddy’s house reef, and “local” dives where we simply stay at the resort and dive the house reef from Buddy’s dock (which is really convenient, BTW, and a great dive to boot). This year we only did two travel dives and all the rest of our shore dives were local.

Now there’s an advantage to diving local because you get to know the reef really well. One thing that I like to shoot and which Dana really wanted to shoot were the Yellowheaded Jawfish. They’re usually in a field of sand just before you hit the edge of the main reef. But this year we found they’d moved and were now in a rubble field just off the end of Buddy’s dock. And by diving this spot a number of times, we not only got to learn it well but we were also able to see something I’d never personally seen before that's been on my bucket list: a male Yellowheaded Jawfish brooding eggs in his mouth.

In all species of jawfish (I think), it’s the male who tends to the eggs. He does this by keeping the eggs in his mouth and making sure they stay aerated, ever occasionally spitting them all out and then sucking them all back in. (I didn’t get to see that, though I tried.) I spotted two different males who both had eggs in their mouths and with lots of patience, was able to get fairly close to shoot them. Those pix are part of our Picture Page for this trip.

One day when I was watching the jawfish, I saw a brief flash out of the corner of my eye. Turns out it was a Signal Blenny. They sit at the edge of a hole and will momentarily (and I do mean blink-of-an-eye-momentarily) stretch almost all the way and flash their dorsal fins a couple of times. Then they quickly retreat back to the edge of their hole and wait (for someone to signal back I guess).

They guys - as you’ll see from my meager attempts - are REALLY hard to shoot because you have such a brief instant in which to get the shot off. If you have a camera that has any type of shutter lag it’ll be impossible. Plus you have to hope you’re focused correctly, exposed right (which in and of itself is tough because the background is usually white sand and they’re dark brown). But it’s a fun challenge.

Sometimes you’re not sure what you’re looking at but it pays to just shoot/shoot/shoot and figure it out later on when you’re looking at the pictures. Such was the case on a night dive we did (on Buddy’s Reef) where we came upon what I first thought were two Arrow Crabs mating. But there was definitely something odd about the whole thing because it seemed like the one on the bottom was extremely pale and maybe even dead. But I followed my own rule of shoot/shoot/shoot and banged off a couple of dozen shots over a span of four minutes.

Closer examination on the computer after we’d downloaded the shots revealed to us that there was something unusual about the bottom crab. In fact, in some of the pictures, it looked lifeless and hollowed out. It was only when we examined the very first picture and zoomed in that we realized what we had witnessed. It was an Arrow Crab MOLTING, which means it literally breaks it’s shell in half, pulls every part of it’s body out, grows a little bigger, and secretes a new shell.

Looking at the very first shot in the sequence (and this really underscores the photog’s maxim of “Luck is defined as preparation meets opportunity”) you can clearly see the break in the shell and that the animal has pulled all the legs out, which are still curled around the soon-to-be-abandoned carcass. As we looked at subsequent shots, you can see that he’s pulled his head out, but that his unicorn-like forehead hasn’t straightened out yet. As you continue to look at subsequent shots, it’s almost like he’s going “Whew!!” and is taking a break. I have no idea how long the entire process takes but it certainly makes the animal very vulnerable to predation because not only are they relatively defenseless, but before they secrete the new shell, they’re soft and pliable (this is how they get “soft-shelled crabs”) and really probably couldn’t defend themselves against an attacker.

One thing that really puzzled me was: What happens to the abandoned shell? In SoCal, we’re quite used to seeing lobster carapaces that are the result of molts. But in Bonaire (and other Caribbean spots), I can’t recall ever seeing abandoned Arrow Crab shells so the question becomes: What happens to the old abandoned shell???

Even though we dove Buddy’s Reef literally every day (sometimes late afternoon, sometimes dusk, two times after dinner at night), we also did two “travel” dives as mentioned previously. Both were quite good.

The first was to Jeannie’s Glory, which is the site just north of the Salt Pier. It’s a really great dive in and of itself as the shoulder of the reef (about 30-35 feet deep) is quite lush with sea fans and softer corals. But if you’re willing to kick a bit, you “accidentally” end up under the outer edges of the Salt Pier and that can be spectacular. There were five or six Tarpon there, small schools of Snapper and Grunts, plenty of angels (both French and Queen), and all kinds of stuff to see.

The other travel dive we did is one that we normally do as a boat dive and that was to the wreck of the Hilma Hooker. It’s not the most interesting dive in the world, especially if you’ve done it before, and I frequently felt like we were “wasting” a boat dive to do it, even though I love taking the requisite head-in-the-prop pictures of everybody. So this was the first time we’d ever dove it from shore. And this is the way we’ll do it from now on.

It’s a fairly easy kick out to the shallow mooring (20 feet deep). drop down there and go across the reef and you’re there. The wreck is over 200 feet long but can easily be explored in 10 or 15 minutes and then you can spend the rest of the time back on the shallow reef. You don’t use up a boat dive, people who have done the dive before can dive a different site, and people who haven’t seen it before can still get it in. Win/win all the way around.

Another thing that was new for us this year was diving the east side of Bonaire, aka the “Wild Side.” The only operator I’d ever heard of there was Larry’s Wild Side Diving but, as part of our package with Buddy’s, we were set up with an outfit called Bonaire East Coast Diving ( Turns out that they took over Larry’s operation some time ago when he ran into some financial difficulties. The operation is run now by two guys named Bas and Ger.

The boat they use is a trailered rigid inflatable and I think they’ll take about a dozen divers. We had 10 and it was a little snug. You leave from the dock at Sorobon (about a 20-minute drive across the island from Buddy’s) and then it’s only about a 10-minute ride out to the dive sites.

One issue is that the sites are limited. They've only got five (but Funchie's & White Hole are done as a single spot) listed on their website. We dove one spot that they said didn’t really have a name (on their website it’s called “Unnamed”) and we liked that a lot. We were greeted by two Eagle Rays and saw another five or six Eagle Rays plus a few turtles during the 45-minute dive. One of the things about the “Wild Side” is that you should see generally bigger creatures and some which you normally don’t see on the leeward side of Bonaire.

The second site was White Hole and Funchie's Reef. I could have done without this one and would have preferred another dive along with wall. The first spot (White Hole) is a collapsed cave so it’s pretty much a round hole with a sandy middle (hence the name), maybe 40-45 feet deep. Bas had told us there could be as many as 50 tarpon hanging in the middle but it appears the operative word was “could”. We saw about 15, scattered about, and all generally small. Nice, but not overly impressive and certainly not the massive group of 50 that we were teased with. There wasn’t much else to see there.

The claim for the other half of the dive (Funchie's) are turtles as it is on the way to a turtle nesting ground. And we did see about half a dozen turtles. But these are in the shallows on the outside of White Hole, in about 15 feet of water, so the vis is somewhat stirred up, you’re hanging pretty shallow, and if the turtles aren’t there, there’s not much else to see.

Like I said, I would have preferred another dive along the ocean edge of the reef, especially because we hit it on the calmest day all week and the conditions were relatively benign, with maybe a 2-foot swell. That made getting back in their boat pretty easy as they deflate part of the side, remove it, and hang a ladder over, so you come up, take your fins off, and climb aboard. And since they "live" boat it, once everyone’s on the surface, it’s OK if the boat drifts from you a bit before you’re picked up because they’ll just come over and get you.

I asked Bas how rough it got on that side of the island and he said that sometimes the swells were 10-15 feet. I said, so I guess you don’t go out on those days, and he said, no we still go. It’s not a problem as the boat can handle it.

I’m sorry, but I can’t even remotely imagine going out in those kinds of seas whether boat can handle it or not. It would be my people I’d be worried about, especially trying to get back on that boat in that type of a swell. It’s a great way to lose a finger or hand to a bouncing ladder or break something if you mis-time things. I’m hoping what he told me was mere bravado because there’s no way that I would go out with them in those conditions. I’d cancel on the spot even if it meant not getting refunded for it. And if they do go out in swells that big, IMHO that’s dangerous and even borderline reckless. Fortunately, conditions weren't an issue during our dive with them and we had a good time.

What was also unusual for this trip is that we had a non-diver along in the personage of Dana's husband Jonathan. But Bonaire's a place where he was able to find plenty to do as he likes to snorkel and he loves to photograph, so he was getting the Flamingoes early in the morning, or going to the Butterfly Farm, or seeking out iguanas and such (as well as occasionally taking photos of us). But the point is that Bonaire, even though it bills itself as "A Diver's Paradise" has things for the non-diver too.

Again on this trip all hopes of losing any weight went out the window as we treated ourselves to fabulous meals each day. We always started with breakfast at Buddy's (included as part of their standard package) and that was always satisfying as they have a wide selection of fruits and breads, some hot breakfast meats along with potatoes, and there's a made-to-order omelet bar.

We ate at the Pool Bar a couple of times for lunch and a couple of times for dinner and while the food was good, the service was painfully slow. One evening, it took us over two hours from the time we sat down to the time we left. And slow lunch service at times meant you lost some down time prior to the afternoon dives. Not the end of the world but faster service would have been appreciated (and it wasn't like they were jammed with other diners).

We had another fabulous meal at Pasa Bon Pizza, just south of Buddy's, where I made the mistake of ordering the large lasagna instead of the individual. Don't get me wrong, it was terrific. But it could have fed the entire table. So I had plenty of leftovers for subsequent lunches.

We also had nice meals at Bistro de Paris and City Cafe but were dismayed to learn that Papagayo, where we'd had FABULOUS burgers last time, has now been converted into a bar-only establish that doesn't serve food. Such is progress.

Our last evening's meal was at my favorite restaurant on Bonaire, Cactus Blue. Run by owner/chef Hagen Wegerer, it's simply delightful. I started out with the Jerk Shrimp (which used to be called "Bite & Kiss" which I told Hagen is a MUCH better name) which I think is just heavenly. And I think between everyone at the table, we probably ordered 80% of the menu and everyone seemed to feel this was our best meal of the trip. So if you’re going to Bonaire, be sure to go to Cactus Blue and tell Hagen I sent you.

We left Bonaire early Saturday morning. The Continental flight left at 8:30AM but we were asked to be at the airport by 6AM. However, Buddy packs a bag breakfast for each departing diver which is a nice touch until you go through security and they confiscate the juice box that was packed because it's a liquid that you can't take into the departure area. (Also be aware that if you buy a beverage in the departure area and open it, they won't let you take it on the plane.) But our flight actually left early, arrived in Houston a few minutes early, the bags were there lickety-split in Customs, and were had plenty of time for our flight back to Los Angeles.

All in all, despite the mosquitoes, it was a really nice trip. One thing we've always said we like about Bonaire is that it's very reliable and you can almost always be assured of having a pleasant trip there. This year was certainly no exception to that, and we'll likely be going back again in 2012.

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