BONAIRE - September, 2012

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

I have to start off by telling you that I’m prejudiced. I really like diving in Bonaire. There are dive sites there that appeal to divers of all skill levels, the conditions are relatively predictable and consistent, and the diving is quite enjoyable.

This year our group numbered seven in all: Walt & Susan Crandall, Pat O’Brien, Jay Wilson, Tony Kalinowski, Mark Geraghty, and me (Ken Kurtis). Pat & Jay were Bonaire vets, the others were Bonaire newbies.
We had a different flight arrangement this year and it still puzzles me. Normally, we took Continental out of LAX on Friday evening, through Houston, and then got into Bonaire at 5AM Saturday morning. I wasn’t nuts about the early arrival but what are you gonna do? With the merger of United and Continental, I assumed the sked would stay essentially the same.
So imagine my surprise when I tried to book the flight and discovered that United doesn’t fly there during the month of September. No one could seem to explain why. They fly in August. They fly in October. But they’ve decided that the four weeks of September aren’t worth their time. Obviously this hurts island tourism (good for us - less crowded, bad for Bonaire - less income)  since United also cancels their September flights out of Newark (New Jersey) into Bonaire. So the island loses four flights a week or about 600 seats/divers. That’s significant.
I think I could better understand if it was three or four months because they were slow months or whatever. The best explanation anyone could come up with was that it was still Atlantic hurricane season and that was the basis of United’s decision. This totally ignores the fact that the Bonaire is not only out of the hurricane belt, but is also rarely affected by the peripheral effects of such storms. So hopefully this will change for 2013.
We instead flew Delta through Atlanta and then straight into Bonaire. This wasn’t too bad as I’ve termed it 4/4/4. It was 4 hours from LAX to ATL (arriving at 6AM), then a 4-hour layover in Atlanta (the new international terminal is really nice and fairly comfortable), and then 4 hours from Atlanta to Bonaire, arriving at 2PM. That put us at Buddy Dive around 3:30PM and we were able to get checked into our rooms and do the mandatory dive orientation by 5PM, which left plenty of time in the evening for unpacking, settling in, and putting together camera gear.
I’ve raved about Buddy Dive in the past and I’ll rave about them again now. Really top-notch operation and IMHO, if you’re going to Bonaire, they ought to be your first choice. On top of being well-run, they’re also situated pretty much in the middle of the island so it means that no dive site is too far away and all the sites at Klein Bonaire - which is ONLY accessible by boat - are within a few miles.
What I also like about Buddy , and this is one of the advantages of diving as a group - is that is they’re very accommodating to groups like ours and will try to tailor a custom dive schedule. We were booked on the 11-boat dive package (with unlimited shore diving) so that meant a single-tank afternoon dive Sunday and 2-tank morning dives each day Monday-Friday. We had it arranged so that we had a boat for just our group which meant we could go wherever we wanted to.
That also worked to our advantage the one day that the weather was a bit gnarly. I was usually getting up around 6:15AM and would head to the breakfast buffet,  and on Tuesday, it was pouring rain and the wind was howling as I made my way over. Uh-oh. The ocean didn’t look too friendly and I wasn’t sure how long it would be until the storm blew through. The consensus of the group was that they wanted to cancel the morning dives. So I was able to talk with Augusto Montbrun, Buddy’s Dive Operations Manager, and re-sked the dives as two 1-tank afternoon dives on Wednesday and Thursday. That way, we didn’t have to go out in less-than-optimal conditions, AND we didn’t lose any dives out of our package.
So, as I’ve said for years, there are distinct advantages in traveling as part of a group (and I’d certainly ALWAYS suggest a Reef Seekers group) over doing things on your own just because there’s definitely more clout when doing things en mass than individually as well as with an experienced group leader (like moi), you can probably get some perks that you might not otherwise get in doing things on your own.
Another advantage of group travel and going with someone who’s been there before is that you can rely on the group leader to not only carve out the best dive sked for you, but also to hopefully get the best rooms for you. At Buddy Dive (we had two 2-bedroom apartments), we think those are rooms 601/602 and 603/604. They’re roomy, come with a kitchen and a kitchenette (the latter of which we use as a camera room), and they’ve got flat-screen TVs with cable. In fact, a difference I noticed between last year and this year is that - at least for these rooms - they’ve been totally redone. Everything is new including cabinets, AC units, TVs, refrigerators, etc. And it seems that they’re methodically working through at least the Lion’s Den side of the resort (the northern part of  Buddy Dive that used to be a separate resort that was bought out by Buddy) to refurbish all of their rooms.
Another change for the better was the food and food service. Our package has always included breakfast which is served buffet style with a wide selection of fruits, juices, cereals, breads, breakfast meats, and hot egg choices including a made-to-order omelet bar. Breakfast has always been good.
I couldn’t say the same in the past about lunch and dinner in the Poolbar. Food was hit-and-miss and service was spotty. But they’ve rectified that now. The food this year was much better, and much more quickly-served. What it meant (and this is good for Buddy overall) is that we were more willing to eat lunch &/or dinner at the resort and that certainly made it easier on us too.
It also alleviated restaurant “problems” we discovered as some of our favorite haunts were not available. Papagayo (fabulous for lunch & huge burgers) closed a couple of years ago. The family that runs Pasta Bon Pizza was on vacation. Capriccio moved and we didn’t discover the new location until it was too late. Sunset (at the Den Lamen) was closed. But the saddest for me was that my friend Chef Hagen has closed Cactus Blue. I’m told he was looking for a new location and simply couldn’t make the deal he wanted but at least temporarily has set up a portable trailer at the Atlantis dive site to the south. (But we didn’t discover that until the day we were leaving so no night dive followed by dinner on the beach.)
We did discover a “new” place, at least for us, and that was Eddy’s, next door to Buddy’s, in front of the Sand Dollar.  The food was really good and the ambiance was nice but we’d suggest you go on a night other than Tuesday, because they’ve got a guy who plays rather loud cover songs and doesn’t exactly mind singing off-key. (We were told he’s only there on Tuesdays, though I can’t imagine why.)
Weather conditions were a little spotty during our week in Bonaire but the dive conditions were pretty good. There was a lot of wind, even for Bonaire, when we arrived Saturday, we got some rain on Tuesday, and there were some days when it was overcast for part of the day. But we still had a lot of sunshine (the last two days were picture-perfect). Underwater the viz was 60-100 feet and the water temp 82-84º with no appreciable currents.
We did many dives on the Buddy house reef, including a dusk or night dive every evening. It’s interesting to see how the reef changes over the years and the changes are subtle. Last year there was a colony of Yellow-Headed Jawfish encamped at the end of the Buddy pier. This year, they’ve moved on. But I thought we were seeing more Parrotfish this year than in the past. And we definitely had more Tarpon.
Tarpon, in case you didn’t know, are large silver fish that look like swimming armored trucks. They’re very scaly and they’re very big, growing to as much as 8 feet in length. My guess is that they can weigh up to 300 pounds. Big fish.  And they’re not too spooked by divers (although divers sometimes get spooked by them).
Tarpon are generally more active at night and they have learned, over the years, to seek out night divers and use the pool of light generated to hunt. It’s not so much that the light enables them to see better but that other fish may get spooked by the light or the proximity of the divers and will move, and the Tarpon can pick up on the vibrations generated by that movement and try to zero in on the fish.
In years past, you generally could expect one or two Tarpon with you on a Buddy night dive. (And they’re all up and down the coast at other resort house reefs too.) But this year, we got a lot more than we expected because we had as many as SEVEN Tarpon cruising in and out of our light beams, going underneath us, and swimming alongside us throughout the dive. Really amazing. (And that was the number we could actually see at one time. There could have been more overall.)
What was really cool would be the times when we’d spread out a bit with divers ahead, behind, and to the sides, and the Tarpon gliding in and out of the various beams of light. Very eerie and very special. If it was a movie, I think we would have called it “Night of the Living Tarpon.”
Night dives are very special in Bonaire. For one thing, they’re really accessible. Bonaire has made a name for itself as the home for 24-Hour Diving and at Buddy’s - and all the other operations on the island - if you want to do a dive at 3AM, you can get a tank and go do it. When they say “unlimited shore diving” they really mean it.
The interesting thing about doing night dives is it’s different. Animals like Parrotfish, Damselfish, and Tangs have gone into hiding in the cracks and crevices of the reef. The trick is not to be discovered at night by the hunters so lack of movement is usually a key component to survival.
Parrotfish have adapted the most unusual strategy and they not only find a crevice to wedge themselves under to snooze, but they also secrete a type of mucous balloon that totally envelops them and hides their scent from others. It takes them a while to do all of this so I was pleasantly surprised to see one animal early in the evening one night, fully wrapped in his cocoon. (I was using the GoPro that night and he was really back under a ledge, so I wasn’t able to get any shots.)
It’s also really interesting to watch the predators hunt. Sometimes you wonder how they stay fed because their percentage of successful strikes seems low. In fact, many of the fish seem downright lazy. They’ll start zeroing in on a fish, make an attempt, and if they’re not fully successful, they move on. Even if they mortally wound a fish, they sometimes won’t make the second effort to finish it off.
But then I got to thinking about some studies I’ve read about the way sharks attack prey and it’s the same thing. They make an initial strike and then wait to see how wounded their prey is before deciding whether or not to come in for the finishing blow.
And even in humans, it seems similar. I often realize that when I have my camera in hand, I’m operating similarly to a predator, just a non-consumptive one. And I will frequently zero in on a subject and try to shoot and then they scoot off and I may follow for a while but at some point I give up and move on because there’s plenty of other opportunities to be had.
So maybe this notion I have of “one and done” isn’t so unique after all.
Speaking of predators, it was also interesting to watch the hunting strategies that some animals have developed. Lying in wait (an ambush predator) is one of the most favored techniques. One of the animals that’s best at that is the Frogfish and we were fortunate to find three during our trip.
They’re not easy to spot because they blend in so well with the sponges upon which they wait. So it’s usually best to have a guide along to point them out since they know which reefs they’ve been spotted on and where they’re likely to be. (The same thought applies to seahorses.) In fact, Frogfish can be so well-hidden that you can be looking right at one and not realize it.
I remember my first Frogfish, also in Bonaire, many years ago. I knew we were going to look for a Frogfish. I knew what the hand signal was when the guide found it. I knew approximately where in the dive we’d find it. What could be easier?
We got to the point. The guide signaled and pointed to the Frogfish. I looked. I looked back at the guide. I looked again and indicated, “Where?” He pointed, “There.” I again asked, “Where?” He pointed again, “There!!” It must have taken me four or five looks before I realized what I was looking at. So it’s not as easy as it sounds.
Which is why I’m not embarrassed to admit that, on the last dive of this trip, I was staring at a Frogfish, literally a foot or two in front of me, and didn’t realize it until the guide pointed it out. To add insult to injury, he was fairly bright yellow sitting against a light yellow sponge. We both (the guide and I) had a good underwater laugh about that. And this guy (the Frogfish)was really interesting because he had his lure deployed and was “fishing” for prey.
Frogfish have a small tuft of skin attached to their nose on a thread-like appendage. Think of fly fishing. They “cast” this little skin tuft in front of them while they remain perfectly still, and if a fish comes into investigate, the Frogfish strikes. So it was fascinating to watch this little guy (maybe 5-6 inches long) trying to snag a snack.
Another interesting hunting strategy involves Trumpetfish and Parrotfish. Trumpetfish are very elongated and will frequently hang nose down in the water column, trying to look like a piece of drifting coral. But they’ve also developed a hunting strategy (and you can see this in some of the pictures I’ve got up on my SmugMug site) where they follow a Parrotfish around and literally place themselves on top of the Parrotfish, much like the shuttle Endeavor rode the 747 into Los Angeles.
The fish that would be prey see the Parrotfish but know there’s no danger from him since they’re coral crunchers. The prey doesn’t notice the danger lurking on top of the Parrotfish. And when the time is right and the distance close, the Trumpetfish darts from the top of the Parrotfish and strikes the prey.
So that’s all just a taste of what Bonaire has to offer. On this trip, we did 22 dives over the course of 6 diving days. We hit many of Bonaire’s top sites, including Rappel, Ol’ Blue (now known as Tolo), Somethin’ Special, Hilma Hooker, Angel City, Sharon’s Serenity (REALLY nice and . . . serene), Knife, Carl’s Hill, and Nearest Point (where the yellow Frogfish was), to name a few.
To my eye, the reefs look pretty healthy. The corals are abundant and robust, despite a red algae that you find in some of the areas that started settling in a few years ago. The purple tube sponges are still plentiful and huge as are the orange Elephant Ear Sponges. And you’ll find plenty of brain coral, sea fans, coral whips, and even staghorn coral in places (which is rare nowadays).
I thought the fish life was pretty good too, and you’ll get a good idea of that if you take some time to look at the SmugMug slide show I’ve put together. There were plenty of Angelfish including French (we went and visited the watermelon-eating pair at Forrest who we’ve seen over the past two or three years), Queen, and Rock Beauties. We even saw some Cherubfish (at Somethin’ Special) which are REALLY tiny and shy. There were lots of Parrotfish, Goatfish, Grunts, Snappers, Damselfish of all types, Triggerfish, some Seahorses, and Pufferfish.
And yes, we saw Lionfish, and seemingly in more numbers than I recall from the past few trips. As you may know, Lionfish have become a problem in the Caribbean in the last few years as they’re not native to the area. The prevailing wisdom is that some were released, either deliberately or inadvertently, into the ocean and they’ve multiplied and spread like wildfire. Because they’re voracious predators and there’s no one to prey on them, the concern is that they’ll be wiping the reefs out of fish. Because of that concern, many Caribbean islands have launched Lionfish eradication programs. I’ve personally got some mixed emotions about this.
I realize Lionfish are an invasive species. I realize there’s concern that they’re going to be destructive. But I’ve really got a problem with the idea of “Welcome to the Marine Park. Don’t touch the coral or harass the animals . . . but feel free to kill the Lionfish.” The history of human intervention to control nature is replete with disastrous results. I still love the line Jeff Goldblum had in the original Jurassic Park: “Nature always finds a way.”
It also seems to me like the Lionfish I observed behave differently than their Pacific counterparts. In  the Pacific, the Lionfish are out in the open because they know that they’ve got nothing to worry about. In the Caribbean, however, they seem to be a bit more timid and are frequently hiding in depressions in the reef and such, not quite as bold as on the other side of the dateline, almost as if they knew they were being hunted.
One of the arguments for hunting the Lionfish is that they have no natural predators in the Caribbean and they’re going to wipe out fish populations. But it brings up the question of: Who’s their predator in the Pacific and why haven’t they wiped out those Pacific fish populations? Something seems to hold them in check in the Pacific or they’re not quite as voracious as everyone thinks. I’m just not comfortable with the “kill all the Lionfish” mentality. It smacks to me of the kill-all-the-sharks mentality that arises after a shark attack. And I do believe nature will find a way, and probably will do it better than humans can by “helping”.
So - Lionfish concerns notwithstanding - we had another great week in Bonaire with our friends at Buddy Dive. It’s a great destination overall and Buddy’s specifically is a great place to spend the week. Will we do it again in 2013? You betcha. Not sure of the exact dates yet but check the website &/or if you’re interested in going, let me know dates that work best for you. Bonaire’s one of those places you should go to if you haven’t yet been and, once you’ve gone, you’ll probably come back time and time again.


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