BONAIRE - APRIL 8-15, 2023

(Click here to see some pictures from this trip plus links to the SmugMug slideshow.)

This was our umpteenth trip to Bonaire and as always, Bonaire is simply a joy to experience. However, there were a few wrinkles this time.

We were twelve strong: Susy Horowitz, Susan Oder, Brian Kibble, Jeff Gleason, Jay Wilson, John Morgan, Gayle Chin, Sharon Talley & Jamie Jamison, Tom & Katy Burns, and me (Ken Kurtis). As always when in Bonaire, we stayed and dove with Buddy Dive Resort.

The first wrinkle didn’t – fortunately – directly affect us. But among the first things we were told when we arrived at Buddy Dive was that the Bonaire recompression chamber was at least temporarily closed. Even though it’s on the grounds of the hospital – actually across the street from it – it’s privately owned by a local doctor. He recently decided to retire and there’s no one to take over for him at the moment. So if you get bent or embolise in Bonaire, at least for the foreseeable future, the closest available chamber is a plane ride away in Curacao. Not good, especially given the amount of diving that’s done in Bonaire. (And, of course, it’s also a subtle reminder of why it’s soooo important for you to support our local Catalina Hyperbaric Chamber.)

The second wrinkle is a bit more serious and is likely to be on-going. That is the presence of Stony Coral Tissue Loss Disease (SCTLD) on some of the Bonaire reefs. SCTLD, also known as Wasting Disease, is a malady that’s affecting many areas of the Caribbean. The effects are similar to the sea-star wasting disease that’s affected many species of west coast stars like Sunflower stars and others.

Essentially, the coral looks bleached. But bleached coral, which happens when the host coral ejects the algae that gives it nourishment and color, can recover, SCTLD is thought to be fatal. Rather than white, the corals turn a white-ish shade of gray. So it’s apparently visually distinguishable from bleaching.

I say “apparently” because we didn’t see any coral affected by SCTLD. That’s because the entity that oversees the Bonaire marine Park (STINAPA) has taken proactive steps to limit the spread of the disease. They’ve closed a number of central sites from Somethin’ Special down to Bachelor’s Beach by the airport. Reefs north and south of that, as well as the reefs on Klein Bonaire, are all still open. (This info is accurate as of 4/15/23. Because this is an evolving situation, you’ll need to find out current status when you arrive in Bonaire if you have a trip planned.) They’re keeping an eagle eye on things and have developed a color-coding system of green/orange/red to indicate open/caution/closed.

The other proactive protocol they’ve instituted is mandatory gear dunking after every dive day and generally between dives as well. Whether it really helps or not is certainly debatable but it definitely doesn’t hurt. You dunk (and soak for a bit if you can) first in water that’s got chlorine bleach tablet added and then rinse everything off in regular fresh water. For our 2-tank boats dives each day, this meant your BC, regulator, weight belt or weights, mask, and fins got dunked. (Buddy Dive has small dunk buckets on each of their boats.) When you got back to the resort, you did those items plus your wetsuit, booties, and hood.

The other thing they ask you to try to do is only dive one area each day. So if you started north, stay north. If you go south, stay south. For Klein it gets complicated because Klein is only accessible by boat. And many times we followed our Klein dives with a Buddy house reef dive (which technically is north).

At this time, there’s no known way to stop the disease from spreading on its own. So the goal of all of this is to avoid cross-contamination, where divers exposed to SCTLD would inadvertently introduce it to a previously uninfected site. This is a lesson that was learned years ago with things like abalone wasting disease, where it was discovered that live wells and bilge water discharges helped the disease spread. It’s also a technique used in many public aquariums (like the Long Beach Aquarium of the Pacific) where divers are required to rinse off and disinfect gear between dives so as to not take a disease in Tank A and transfer it to Tank B.

What SCTLD disease means for the future of Bonaire is unknown. If you are planning a trip there anytime soon – maybe in the next six months or so – you should find out what the situation is and determine how it might affect your diving. Since the prevailing current in Bonaire moves north to south, there’s a school of thought that the southern areas might be most vulnerable to infection as Somethin’ Special – which is in the middle of the island just south of Buddy Dive – is the northernmost of the affected sites. But there’s a lot that’s simply unknown about this at the time as this disease was first detected only a few months ago, in late March. Fingers crossed that this situation does not become worse and spread out of control.

For us, Somethin’ Special was the only one of our “regular” sites that we weren’t able to dive. I had us on what is the typical plan for a Reef Seekers Bonaire trip which is five days of 2-tank dives and a bunch of shore diving. We arrived on a Saturday – we had divers on each of the three in-bound flights – and used that remainder of that day to settle in, attend the afternoon dive briefing (mandatory for all guests and very helpful this year with the SCTLD protocols), and make a supermarket run to load up on snacks and other food and drinks. Breakfast is included as part of the standard package, so the food was generally for lunch in the room as we usually went out somewhere for dinner.

Bonaire has a requirement that your first dive be a shore dive done on the house reef of wherever you’re staying. The Buddy Dive house reef happens to be an excellent dive regardless so this is not an undue burden. What we usually do is plan to spend our first dive day (Sunday) strictly doing house reef dives. Because the reef is within steps of our rooms, it’s not only an easy dive – there are two sets of stairs for getting in and out – but it also gives us a chance to adjust weights, work on buoyancy, deal with any gear issues, and stuff like that. In fact on our first dive day, I managed to squeeze in five dives on the house reef (four daytime dives and a dusk dive), each of them being a bit different from the previous one. I also discovered a small water intrusion in my camera housing.

You’ve likely heard me say over the years, “It’s not IF you flood your camera but WHEN you flood your camera.” Fortunately, mine was a small, slow, minimal leak, not a full flood. So I didn’t lose the camera and lens. But I did get a little bit of water – maybe a teaspoon if that much – in the bottom of the camera on the first dive. That seemingly shorted out the electronics within a bottom plate that takes the signal from the camera hotshoe, runs it through the housing to the outside strobe cable connector, and all of that allows the strobes to fire in sync with the camera.

Not mine. On the second dive I realized the strobes weren’t firing – the black images on the viewfinder were the first clue – and then I saw the inside of the housing was wet. Just drops and droplets but it doesn’t take much and another saying is that water will always find a way.

The overriding question for me was: Is it safe to continue to dive with the camera? I did another test dive where I took the camera out of the housing, taped down a weight equal to the camera weight inside the housing (for buoyancy), and took it on a dive. I was able to see where I thought the water was coming from and convinced myself that this was not the precursor to a full flood and that, as long as I checked the camera throughout the dive and put some absorbent inside (I used some paper towels) the water intrusion was livable/manageable.

The big issue was that I’d only be able to shoot natural light which can be very difficult in Bonaire, especial when you like to do macro like I do as well as shoot into cracks and crevices. It means exposing as best I could and then tweaking the images in Lightroom each evening to see what color I could find.

Towards the end of the week, I took the Sola video lights off of my GoPro, ziptie’d them to my strobe arms (no strobes), and tried to use that as a light source. Even at 2500 lumens at full power, they’re nowhere near as powerful a light as my YS-D1 strobes but they were better than nothing.

So this is all a long way of telling you that when you go look at the pix in the Bonaire SmugMug slide show, they’re going to look a bit different than what you normally see from me. They definitely have less “pop” due to the lack of a strobe. But there are some interesting images, it was a wonderful photographic challenge for me, and I think overall you’ll like what you see.

We plan on daily dusk dive and we enjoy them a lot. But this time, we could only plan to do them Sunday, Monday, and Tuesday. That was because starting Wednesday, another wrinkle came into play and that was a Box Jellyfish warning. These little guys come out after dusk, inhabit the shallows, and can pack quite a punch if they sting you on bare flesh (like hands or face). Buddy Dive prohibited diving from their dock during these nights so we took that to heart and passed on dusk dives – which we usually start around 5:45 or so - on Wednesday and Thursday.

One of the things we’ve always liked about the dusk dives in the past is the River of Fish. (That’s my name for it, not an official designation.) It is a seemingly nightly migration of thousands and thousands and thousands of Creole Wrasses frantically heading north in a small, relatively tight unending line. They generally do this at a depth of 50-60 feet and it’s a hoot to watch. I’ve sat there in the past with my GoPro and spent 20 minutes or more watching the endless parade. I have no idea where they’re going and I assume they reverse the direction in the morning and flow south, only to then head north the next evening. (I don’t think they circumnavigate the island but I don’t really know.)

But the River of Fish was absent Sunday evening. (It was Easter, so maybe they had the day off.) There was a small trickle on Monday but they were back in force on Tuesday, which was a nice garnish to the dive where we also found a frogfish. These animals are incredibly hard to find. And while I’d like to say I’m the one who discovered it, that’s not the case. But I’d heard a rumor that there was a frogfish out from Captain Don’s (north of Buddy Dive). When I asked about, they showed me a map that was drawn by Buddy Dive DM Martje Bakker. It was a fabulous map and made it easy to find the sponge in which the frogfish lived. Finding the frogfish was another matter altogether.

In case you’re not familiar with them, most frogfish look more like the sponges that they hide in than the sponges do. They are masters of camouflage and patience because they find a spot on the sponge that they like, flatten themselves against the sponge, and then they just sit and wait. And wait. And wait. And when some unsuspecting poor fish comes by, they become a morsel for the frogfish.

So finding the sponge was easy. It was a brown branching sponge with lots of cracks and crevices, maybe two feet wide and four feet long. You would think you could visually cover that area pretty quickly. And you can. But frogfish are REALLY hard to spot, even when you know they’re there. So it took me almost 15 minutes to find the frogfish. (As Jay Wilson described it, “The most intensely examined sponge in Bonaire.”) And even when I did find it, I had to do a double-take to make sure I wasn’t mistaking sponge for fish. The giveaway in this case – and it usually is the key thing to look for – is the eye. Once you’ve got the eye spotted, you’ll probably then pick up on the pectoral fin (which looks like a hand – they’re sometimes known as Handfish) and then you’ll spot the rest of him.

This guy was tucked inside a little pocket of the sponge and was sitting not upright but somewhat on his side, with just his eye and nose initially visible. And as I mentioned, REALLY looked like the light-brown sponge in which he was perched. He was sort of a dirty yellow-brown. The sponge had dark spots on it and so did he. So he blended in pretty good, as you can see in the trip pix on my SmugMug page.

This was the only frogfish we spotted on the entire trip. The late Murph Henar (Buddy Dive DM extraordinaire) used to refer to frogfish and seahorses as his “special friends.” And Murph had plenty of friends at many dive sites. I’m not sure if Bonaire no longer has the wealth of seahorses and frogfish that it used to have, or if they new crop of DMs simply aren’t as good as Murph was at finding them and sharing the location with others. Either way, they’re rare finds now, although we did manage to come across two seahorses on this trip.

Diving conditions were good to very good. Water temp was a solid and consistent 80º on my computer. Viz was better on the Klein sites than the shore sites along Bonaire. Some of this had to do with stronger-than-expected wind and a slight shift in wind direction, normally out of the northeast but this time on a more easterly flow. Overall I’d estimate viz at 50-60 feet on the shore sites and 60-90 when we were on Klein. But there was one time the viz dropped to maybe two feet and we were delighted to experience it.

On Tuesday we did a dive at Carl’s Hill on Klein when we came upon a weird-looking yellow sponge. It seemed to be spewing a constant stream of particulate. I recognized this as spawning behavior when the sponge (or coral) releases eggs (or sperm) and other similar sponges (or corals) do the same thing at the same time in the collective hopes that the eggs and sperm find each other in the water column, fertilize, and then drift and settle somewhere to start a new colony. So that’s what was happening here. And when we got back to Buddy Dive, one of the DMs told us it was the right time for a massive sponge spawn.

Move our timeline ahead 24 hours and we were doing a late afternoon dive on the Buddy Dive house reef and were heading north to find the Captain Don’s frogfish. As we were moving along, I could see ahead that it looked like the viz was a little milky. As we came closer, that’s when the viz dropped to two feet or less and I realized we were right in the middle of a spawn and what we were swimming through were the aforementioned eggs and sperm. The milky cloud was a good 20 feet wide and 10 feet or more tall. Hopefully some of them fertilized and will become new sponges.

Overall, we did 22 dives. 8 of those were on Klein, 9 were on the Buddy house reef, and 5 were various shore sites. Specifically, we did Southside, Mi Dushi (twice), Sharon’s Serenity, Carl’s Hill, Captain Don’s (dive site on Klein with a commemorative plaque for Captain Don at the mooring), Joanne’s Sunchi, and Knife on Klein and Andrea II, Larry’s Lair, Salt Pier, Bruce’s Rappel, and Cliff on Bonaire proper, along with the Buddy Dive house reef. There’s definitely a similarity to Bonaire dive sites but it seems that Salt Pier was the hands-down favorite.

And the reason for that is that the Salt Pier has just about everything you could hope to see in Bonaire. While I’m sure there are seahorses and frogfish that we simply didn’t know how o find, we did have schools of snappers and goatfish, plenty of French Angels and a few Queen Angels, eels, Spotted Drum, an octopus, Tarpon, filefish of varying sorts, encrusting sponges on the pilings, seafans, rope coral . . . you get the idea. It’s really a fabulous dive site and the only thing you need to be aware of is whether or not there’s a ship at the pier getting loaded because on those days, diving is prohibited.

In general terms, I don’t think there was much we missed seeing underwater. Bonaire has never been known for sharks and none were spotted by us. But the Tarpon were all over the place, the Creole Wrasse were plentiful (even when they weren’t Rivering), there were huge schools of Scissortail Damsels, numerous Tarpon out during the day, all kinds of Parrotfish, lots of Butterflyfish, and only a few Lionfish. The corals and reefs, with the exception of those being hit by SCTLD, are vibrant and healthy. Buddy Dive is also heavily involved in the Bonaire Reef Restoration project, which involves growing corals and transplanting them and they’re very proud of stand of Elkhorn Coral – an endangered species – which seems to be thriving.

What impressed me the most were the gazillion Sharpnose Puffers that were everywhere you looked. I was a bit thrown at first because a lot of them had pale underbodies resembling Goldface Tobys (p. 445 of the Humann book) but looking at the tail marking and dark border around the tail in the shots I got, I think they’re Puffers not Tobys. Regardless, they were EVERYWHERE, usually in pairs and sometimes in threesomes. (Who am I to judge?) But really nice to see and another example of what a healthy reef should look like.

Obviously I’m a bit biased but I’d say this was another successful Bonaire trip. The rooms at Buddy Dive Resort – we had a couple of 2-bedrooms and some 1-bedrooms – are all very nice and comfortable (good A/C), spacious even, and the Buddy Dive DM staff is top-notch. Food is very good starting with the morning breakfast buffet as well as Blennie’s (casual dining) and Ingredients (a bit more upscale and expensive.) Our only complaint with the last two is that while the food was very good, the service could have been faster. I’m not sure if it’s an “island time” mentality or what, but it seems to be a problem I’m mentioned repeatedly over the years. Not a deal-breaker but certainly could be improved.

We tend to do this trip every year (though usually in May) and a number of the people on this year’s trip already said they’d like to go again. So will we? I’m pretty sure we will. Will YOU be joining us? Well, that remains to be seen but we can promise you that if you do decide to come, it will be a trip that you’ll enjoy immensely.

© 2023 Reef Seekers Dive Co. All Rights Reserved.