BONAIRE - May, 2013

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

Maybe I should just change my middle name to Bonaire . . .

Well, I definitely love going here. The diving's good and very reliable, the people are friendly, it's not too hard to get to, it's not all that expensive, and we have a lot of friends here. What's not to like?

We were eight strong this year: Wil & Linda Lemley, Mike & Sharol Carter, Marilyn Dahle, Pat O'Brien, Di Krall, and me (Ken Kurtis). And this year's group underscores one of the strengths of Bonaire because everyone had been here at least once before. It's simply a place that makes you want to come back.

It's relatively easy to get to and we used just about every option available. Marilyn flew on United from Newark non-stop into Bonaire (she lives in New York on Long Island), arriving at 4:30AM. Pat also flew United but from LAX through Houston, arriving at 6AM. Di & I flew from LAX on Delta to Atlanta, where we overnighted. Mike & Sharol had also flown Delta to Atlanta but went in a day early to do some sightseeing. Wil & Linda now live in Reno and flew to Atlanta through Salt Lake City. We all rendezvoused in the ATL international terminal for the mid-morning flight down to Bonaire, arriving around 2PM.

Personally, I prefer the Delta schedule. It was nice to break up the travel (we got a hotel room for the night) and by arriving in the afternoon, we still had enough time to check in to our rooms, fill out our diving paperwork, do the mandatory orientation to Buddy's, have a leisurely dinner, and still had time in the evening to hook up cameras because we weren't starting our diving until 9AM the next day.

The other advantage of the Delta schedule is on the backend of the trip as we leave Bonaire at 3PM which means you've got the entire morning to have breakfast, pack, say goodbye, etc. We don't get back to LAX until around 10:30PM but that just means go home and go to sleep.

On the United schedule, you've got to leave early in the morning, at 6AM for the Newark flight, and at 7:30AM for the Houston flight. While this probably means you're getting home at a reasonable hour, it means you have to get up and go to the airport before dawn. It also forces you to make some difficult choices about diving the day before you fly. If you want to do a full 24 hours, it means no diving on Friday. If you're good with the D.A.N. recommendation of 18 hours, it still means cutting things off by Noon Friday. On the Delta sked, we could dive a full day Friday. By the same token, on the United sked, you could have started diving the previous Saturday right after you arrived (but you might still be tired from the travel and jetlag).

We really like staying at Buddy Dive. We always book the "Dive & Drive" package which this year meant we got our room (2-bedroom apartments), breakfast daily, nine boat dives (2-tank morning dives for four days and a single-tank afternoon dive one day), unlimited shore diving, nitrox or air, and use of a rental vehicle (one per room).

The vehicle really comes in handy on a number of levels. This group was not into shore diving very much, though they loved diving the house reef at Buddy (which was an easier entry). But we used the cars to go to the supermarket to stock up on munchies, we used it a couple of days for island tours, and we used them every night to drive to dinner. So even if you were never doing a single shore dive throughout the week you're there, the vehicle comes in handy. (And there are some other resorts that do not include a vehicle in their standard package.)

Let me throw in a word about the supermarket because there's a new one which is out near the airport. Because we have full kitchens in the apartments, we usually go shopping at least for lunch food or munchies for the week. In the past, that meant going to Cultimara downtown which was OK, but not great. Well, they've got great.

It comes in the form of the Van den Tweel market and it's an American-style supermarket, which is a huge step up for Bonaire. They've just about anything you want, excellent selection, fair prices, and they're open 8A-8P daily 7 days a week. In the traffic circle north of the airport, take the arm that heads you to the east past the gas station and Van den Tweel will be on your left, a little less than half a mile down, just before the next traffic circle.

Back to Buddy Dive . . .

The 2-bedroom apartments we get are really great. We go on the Lion's Den side (north side - was a different resort that Buddy bought a few years back) and get ground floor units. One half has a large bedroom, small kitchen (which we use as a camera room because it's not air conditioned), and a nice bathroom. The other side has a slightly smaller bedroom, similar bathroom, nice kitchen, large living room & dining area, and a patio. There's a connecting door that makes these two 1-bedrooms into a 2-bedroom but they can be reserved as a 1-bedroom if you like.

The other thing that we LOVED and took full advantage of was that Buddy now has free Wi-Fi. They used to charge $40/week for it but just a few weeks ago started making it a freebie. I think that's a very smart marketing plan because we certainly spent more time on-line and because of that we're frequently posting and extolling the virtues of Buddy and Bonaire, and that's good PR for both.

The other thing that was nice was that the Wi-Fi was available in our room. (Well, it was available in one of the two apartments.) That also made things convenient. They say that the Wi-Fi is available mainly in the Poolbar area but the signal certainly carries. Interestingly, we could NOT get a signal in 601/602 but got a strong signal in 701/702 which was no more than 50 feet away. Go figure. And while the wireless service was spotty at times, when it was working (which was probably 90% of the times we tried), it gave a strong and fairly fast signal. So uploading pictures to SmugMug and Facebook was a breeze.

We also really like the Buddy dive operation, under the watchful eye of good friend Augusto Montbrun, their Dive Operations Manager. One of the advantages of coming as a group and communicating ahead of time with Augusto is that we were able to arrange a boat that was just for our group and no one else. Because there were eight of us, we had one of their smaller boats which was just fine. Their bigger open boats take 16-20 people and you sign up each day for the next-day dives you want to do. Ours were arranged ahead of time and pre-set.,

Conditions were good, but not great (and not as good as we had back in September when we were last here). Visibility was 50-60 feet generally (though we had a dive at Sharon's Serenity where the viz was 100+ feet) and there was noticeable particulate in the water. Water temps were generally 81-82 on my computer but we had one or two dives where we all thought the water felt a little chillier than that. But no real complaints. I wore a Pinnacle 1mm full one-piece jumpsuit with a Tilos 1mm hood and that was just perfect. (For those who dive with me regularly, yes, I've finally retired that delaminating lycra hood that makes me look like a conehead.) There were no currents to speak of.

I mentioned earlier that this group was not much on shore diving unless it was from Buddy's dock on the house reef. The shore dives there are not, IMHO, difficult, but you've definitely got to walk over rocks and be careful of slippery stuff when you're getting in lest you fall and injure yourself. So we did do one dive at Angel City and one dive at Jeannie's Glory (more on those in a bit) but the rest were house reef dives.

The house reef was the site of a "milestone dive" that I did Friday morning with Wil Lemley. I first met Wil thirty-one years ago when he was enrolled in the L.A. County Advanced Diver Program, I was one of the team instructors, and Wil was assigned to my team. It's an association that's continued off and on over three decades.

So I was very pleased when Wil told me that he'd hit his 1500th dive on this trip. I told him we could do whatever dive he wanted to do and he chose the house reef. We made up a sign that said "Wil's 1500th" so we'd have a pictorial record for the photos. And we had a great dive to boot. We even saw something Wil & I have never seen before which was a large Tiger Grouper who had a remora attached to his belly. I've never seen a remora on a grouper before so that was a first for both of us. And it just goes to show that even with 1500 dives under your belt, there's always something new to see.

Now I'll be the first to admit that the Buddy House reef is pretty good. One dive we did every day was a dusk dive, starting around 5:30PM and out of the water around 6:30PM. (Sundown was at 7PM.) The advantage of this is that we definitely see the reef changing into the night reef as animals like Parrotfish are looking for a place to settle in and many fish are trying to get their last cleaning of the day done.

But the most amazing thing to see on these dusk dives is what I call the "River of Fish." Simply put - and I have no idea why this happens - every night around this time, the Creole Wrasses start making a beeline north. I'm not just talking a couple of fish. I'm talking tens of thousands of fish, and maybe more. They form a small column, perhaps 5-10 fish wide, and they just keep coming and coming and coming and coming.

So one thing I decided I wanted to do was document all of this with my GoPro because this happened like clockwork, every night with regularity, and it was something we've noticed in years past as well. So I entered the water Wednesday night with great anticipation and . . . there was not a Creole Wrasse in sight. Now just to give you perspective, this is somewhat akin to saying you got on the 405 at 8:30AM on a Wednesday and there were no other cars around. It simply doesn't happen that way. I don't know if they were on strike or what, but they weren't running that night for the first time in, like, forever. Grrrrr.

So I figured I can't possibly get skunked twice and went back out with the trusty GoPro on Thursday night. I dropped down to about 70 feet and . . . there they were, thick as thieves and running strong. I turned on the GoPro and pushed the record button only to be greeted five seconds later by beep-beep-beep. Damn!!! That's the sound a GoPro makes when the battery is dead. Seems I'd forgotten to inset a new one following our morning dives. So I had the River of Fish but a dead camera. Grrrr.

Fortunately, I had another shot at it Friday, our last day of diving. So I entered the water around 5:45PM, went down to 70 feet and the Creole Wrasses were there but . . . they were going the wrong way. And they seemed confused because they'd circle around, then they'd head south, then north for a while, then they'd stop or drift out into the blue. Very strange.

But gradually, the river developed. And within half an hour, they were flowing strong (and headed north). So what I did is just turned the camera on and made a single shot with them flying by for about 10 minutes. I've cut it together as a small video (with music of course) to give you a feel for the whole thing. You really have to see it to appreciate it. And bear in mind that these fish aren't circling around then coming by the camera again. Every fish you see fly by is a "new" fish. I have no idea how many there are or why they do this but it's pretty amazing to watch.

And we saw plenty of other cool stuff too. One thing was that we saw a lot of turtles, more than I recall seeing over a week in Bonaire in the past. But we didn't see as many seahorses and frogfish as we normally do. Only one of each. I'm not sure if that's because there aren't as many anymore or if because we had some new guides and they simply don't know yet where to find the "special friends."

But the one frogfish we did see this year, a purplish guy on Something Special, is the same guy we saw back in September of last year. (In fact, he was in pretty much the same location.) This is another reason why it pays to stay close to the guides. Many of the highlight-reel fish, like frogfish and seahorses, are relatively territorial and don't stray far from home. So a guide who knows what to look for and where to look for it is invaluable. And the Buddy Dive guides are ball pretty good spotters.

We also had a really wonderful squid encounter at Small Wall. Right when we jumped in, there were two squid in the shallows. So of course, we seized the opportunity to squeeze off some shots before we really started the dive (just in case they were gone when we returned at the end of the dive). Then we meandered down the wall and took it all in. When we got back under the boat 45 minutes later, the squid were still there and didn't seem too spooked if they were approached slowly. So I spent the last 10 minutes or so just hanging out and taking pictures. There's no telling what they were "saying" to me but it was fascinating watching the color changes pulse through their bodies over the course of the encounter.

There were two other nice things we saw at Small Wall. One was a Midnight Parrotfish which was simply enormous, probably three feet long or so, and not as skittish as they normally are. This one let me get pretty close although he took me rather deep (108') to get the shots. But these guys just go along happily munching on the coral like any other Parrotfish. I've seen them before, but never had one let me stay this close to him for this long.

The other nice discovery was a juvy Spotted Drum. From a photo standpoint, they're usually pretty hard to shoot because they're always flitting all over the place but this guy was relatively calm and stayed out in the open as well so that made for a better photo encounter. But it seemed to me that in the past I saw many more juvy and adult Spotted Drums than we did on this trip.

And that really points up one of the great aspects about diving that I've mentioned frequently over the years. It's the World's Greatest Scavenger Hunt. You never know what you're going to find and when you go back an hour (or eight months) later, things will be different. For me, it's that unpredictability of what you might find that's always been an attractive aspect of diving. It's always an adventure and you can always find something you didn't expect.

And that's what happened when we dove Jeannie's Glory, turned left, and ended up under the edge of the Salt Pier. Normally you find a number of tarpon there. But there was a crane on a barge tied up to this part of the pier and that cast a huge shadow in the water. The tarpon had moved out from under the pier and were hanging in the shadow.

But right at the base of the pier was a nice-sized Barracuda and he was calmly sitting there while cleaner fish worked him over. This gave us at least a brief chance to get fairly close and snap off some shots (but I couldn't get the cleaners in frame). But again it underscores the nature of not knowing what you'll find and that there's always something interesting waiting to be discovered.

We also discovered some new restaurants this go-round. Bonaire's always had a number of good ones and one of our favorites was Cactus Blue. But it closed last year in a lease dispute. However, we were very happy to learn that Chef Hagen has reopened as Cactus Blue on the Beach at the Atlantis dive site (also the major kiteboarding site). The menu is variations on hamburgers but they're among the best hamburgers you'll find. Definitely worth a stop. Tell Hagen we sent you.

Another new spot for us this trip was The Ribs Factory which is located in downtown Kralendjik right on the water on the second floor. The specialty, as the name implies, are ribs and they are cooked to perfection and literally fall off the bone. If you're a rib aficionado (as I am), then you've got to give these folks try the next time you're in Bonaire.

And this all pretty much sums up the Bonaire experience. It's got diving that's suitable and enjoyable for divers of all experience levels, it's got some great restaurants, the weather's pretty predictable in that they're generally out of the hurricane belt, it's affordable, and you'll see cool things underwater. What more could you ask for??? We'll go back again in 2014. Perhaps you'll be able to join us.

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