BONAIRE - March 19-25, 2017

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

Those of you who dive with us regularly know that each year when we’re laying out the trip schedule, we wrestle with the competing notions of whether we should go back to places that we’ve already been (because we know them well) or go to new places (because different can be exciting). So it was nice this year to combine sort of the best of both and go back to a place we know well but where we haven’t been since 2014, so you’d expect that some things have changed.

Such is the case with our Bonaire 2017 trip. It’s a place we know well but, because we hadn't visited lately, was also going to be interesting to see what had changed in the last 36 months.

The first noticeable change is the flight schedule going into Bonaire. Island-nations like this are at the mercy of the airlines because, obviously, if you can’t get somewhere, it’s going to adversely affect tourism. In the case of Bonaire, they’ve gone from roughly eight or ten flights per week to three (United has two and Delta has one). You can get in on regional airlines if you go through Curacao or Aruba but it’s a risky proposition.

But the island is still booming. There are new dive operations that have sprung up, a lot of building going on (both residential and commercial), and there’s even now a Courtyard by Marriott right across from the airport.

The other thing that’s changed in the past three years is that they get more cruise ships now, sometimes two a day. It’s really a bit weird when you look at the downtown area and realize that the tallest “building” is a cruise ship looming over the area. It’s really good money in terms of tourism dollars but, especially for a small place like Bonaire, you sell a bit of your soul and character to get the income. And while the dive operators try to hook up with the cruise passengers, they also (at least at Buddy Dive) try to take them to areas where they’re not taking their weeklong guests so – unlike in Cozumel – there’s not a mad dash for dive sites trying to get there before the cruise passengers do.

The cruise line presence has seemed to create another new experience in Bonaire: traffic jams. Because the streets are narrow, lots of people walking around the downtown area means traffic has to slow as they cross the street and that backs things up. No biggee but just another sign of “progress.”

But overall, Bonaire is still a wonderful experience. The diving is good, the resort is wonderful, and there’s good food to be had as well.

As always, we stay with our friends at Buddy Dive Resort. And when I say “friends,” I really mean that because I stay in touch with dive shop operations manager Augusto Montbrun throughout the year. And many of the front desk and restaurant people are ones we’ve been dealing with for years.

But there’s definitely been a lot of turnover in the dive staff since we were last here in 2014. Although the staff signs a one year contract, Augusto and I were talking about the problems of keeping staff around. When someone’s new, it takes a good six months to train them in the various aspects of the overall dive operation (DMing, handling boats, filling tanks, working the dive desk, etc.), let alone getting them to learn the dive sites and where to find the special creatures. That’s where someone like Murph, who’s been there since 1993, is so valuable not only to Augusto and the operation, but to those of us who bring people here to dive. On the other end of the spectrum, we had Laurent who had only been there three weeks and was still (literally and figuratively) getting his feet wet. But a lot of times they get young guys and gals, fresh out of instructor school, who want to work for a couple of years at a dive operation before they decide what they "really" want to do in life.

Don’t mistake any of these comments for a complaint. Augusto, along with assistant manager Martin, has the place running like a top. And the attitude of all of the dive staff is pretty much “What do you need? We’ll try to make that happen.” With us specifically, that meant getting assigned our own boat each day rather than having to sign up on their boat board. And that was perfect for our group of seven. Speaking of which . . .

We had one newbie and six Bonaire veterans this time. Lou Weisberg was the newbie, and Laurie Kasper (who celebrated her birthday during this trip), Di Krall, Tamar Toister, Susan Oder, Marilyn Dahle, and me (Ken Kurtis) were the veterans.

We also got two of our favorite rooms (601 & 602) at the resort. I usually like to book us on the north side of the property, which used to be the Lion’s Den Resort, because it’s a little quieter, I think the rooms are laid out better, you can park very close to your room, and you still have easy access to the restaurants and dive area. Plus, I think they’ve redone their Wi-Fi throughout the place, because we now get a very strong signal in the room, so you’re not limited to using your computer in the bar or restaurant areas. Download/upload speeds are decent as well.

Other welcome changes at Buddy are that they’ve paved over their gravel roads so it makes both walking and driving around the place a lot easier (and less messy if it rains). They’ve rebuilt the working part of the dive area including the tank room, moved the rinse bins out onto the dock, and added individual lockers (with locks) to the gear room (which also means no more “secret key”).  There’s still only one set of stairs going down into the water from the main part of the dock and I wish they’d either add back a second set (it was destroyed a number of years ago during a storm surge created by a hurricane) or widen the existing one. There’s a second set of stairs on the north side of the dock in the photo area but it’s in need of some repair.

They’ve also renamed all of their boats. All the boats are now “________ Buddy.” We dove Any Buddy. There’s also My Buddy, Little Buddy (no sign of Gilligan though), Coral Buddy, Reef Buddy, and Dive Buddy. Perhaps their next boats will be Some Buddy and No Buddy. Although the typical dive plan for us was a 2-tank dive, they now seem to run their “public” boats as single-tank dives, going out at 8:10 and 10:10AM, and then again at 2:10AM. The reason for this is that their typical dive package is a 6-tank one, and presumes you’ll be shore-diving the rest of the time. For our trips, I always upgrade us to a 12-boat-dive package (2/day for 6 days) because – as the Reef Seekers clientele gets older – we seem to be more of a boat-diving than shore-diving bunch of people.

That doesn’t mean we didn’t shore dive. Bonaire, after all, is considered the shore-diving capital of the world. They’ve got 63 named sites, most of which are accessible by shore, and then another 26 on Klein Bonaire – a small island that lies roughly 1-miles offshore – all of which are only accessible by boat. The most accessible of all of those for us was the house reef at Buddy and we dove that every day.

It’s really a great little dive and certainly easy to do. You’d go down to the dive dock, get your gear out of your locker, pick up a tank, hook everything up, walk down the stairs into the water, and off you go. You biggest decision would be whether to go left or right when you hit the dropoff. Both ways are good.

To the left (which is heading south towards Sand Dollar and Bari Reef) it’s more wall-ish and you have the possibility of seeing Tarpon during the day along with the usual creatures which consist of Parrotfish, Creole Wrasses, White-Spotted Eels, Damselfish, gazillions of Christmas Tree worms, and more. It’s really healthy reef.

If you choose to turn right (north towards Captain Don’s and Reef Scientifico), you’ll pass by the area where the Coral Restoration Foundation is attempting to grow new corals (set up on a suspended ladder). The slope is more gentle here but generally populated with the same array of critters. However, it also was where we found a “special friend.”

I’d heard a rumor that there was a frogfish nearby and got Murph to tell me how to find him. “It’s easy mon. Just go out to the old pipe at 20 feet over there and look for the broken coral, and then he’s around there on a purple sponge. Bright green guy. Ya. You can’t miss him.”

Murph can’t miss him. I can. And did the first time. In my defense, it was dark. But on the second attempt the next day, I saw the pipe, I found the broken coral, and VOILA!!! – I found the frogfish right where Murph said he would be, blending in to the purple coral as much as a yellow-green frogfish can. (You'll see shots of him in the SmugMug slideshow.)

The other “special” friend you hope to see in Bonaire is a seahorse and we found a couple at Keepsake, which is on Klein. My impression is that seahorses (and frogfish as well) are not as plentiful as they used to be in Bonaire. In fact, one other thing we noticed was that the Spotted Drum, which is sort of the national fish of Bonaire, were prevalent but only in the adult phase. For the entire week we were there, we didn’t see a single juvenile. Obviously, you’d think they were there somewhere but it seems to me that in the past, we’d see a couple of each on almost every single dive.

But the parrotfish seemed to me to be more plentiful than I recall in the past and they seemed a lot more comfortable being around divers in that they don’t spook if you approach them slowly and they don’t get that “I’m-outta-here” look in their eyes and take off.

Visibility was really good the entire week, averaging 80-100 feet with one exception where it was a milky 20 feet (Lighthouse Point). We were near the Cargill Salt Works and it was almost as if someone has dumped salt in the water and it was dissolving. But other than that one dive, this was probably the best overall vis that we’ve had recently in Bonaire. I’m not sure if it was luck of the draw or that we were here in March, where in the past we’ve generally gone in May or June.

On my computer, water temp was hanging around 80ºF which is about 2-4ºF less than I’d normally expect but, since we’re there a few months earlier than usual for us, it makes sense that the water hasn’t yet fully warmed up.

Fish have an interesting “To Do” list each day as there are only three things on it: (1) Eat, (2) Don’t get eaten, and (3) Procreate. So to my way of thinking, a healthy reef is when you see the animals engaging in those behaviors. And we definitely saw all three.

One 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. And what they’ll do (you can see this in some of the pictures I've got up on my SmugMug site as “Hunting Buddies”) is they literally place themselves on top of a Parrotfish, like they’re snuggling. 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.

On this trip, we did 19 dives over the course of 5.5 diving days. We hit many of Bonaire's top sites, including Rappel, Sharon's Serenity (which was not at all serene – strongest current I’ve ever experienced in Bonaire), Knife, Petrie’s Pillar (which was fabulous), Larry’s Lair (which we did as a shore dive), and Monte’s Divi, to name a few.

To my eye, the reefs look pretty healthy. The corals are abundant and robust. A few years ago we started seeing a red algae that apparently was a result of a sewage treatment plant but it doesn’t seem as prevalent now. 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 lots of Parrotfish, Goatfish, Grunts, Snappers, Damselfish of all types, Triggerfish, some Seahorses, and Pufferfish. There were also plenty of Angelfish including Queen and French (plus we saw a few French intermediates and one really cute juvy). We did not visit my two favorite French Angels which are the two at Forest who crave watermelon and who we’d feed at the end of each dive there while taking pictures of all of our divers feeding them.

It seems the marine park authority (STINAPA) has been cracking down lately on a number of issues which include no longer tossing watermelon rinds and other organic material into the water, strengthening the prohibition on gloves, not allowing reef hooks or tickle sticks of any kind, and banning any sort of deliberate fish feeding. So that last one sort of knocks out the highlight of a dive at Forest, so we passed.

But none of this means we didn’t have a fabulous time. And we ate well too. Bonaire always seems to have a number of very good restaurants. The Bonaire Rib Joint is now King of Ribs but still yummy, Pasa Bon Pizza has the best lasagna around (and even the single portion is so huge that you’ll have leftovers for lunch the next day), we had a lovely meal at Ingridients, which is the new upscale restaurant at Buddy Dive, and the Buddy Dive Pool Bar was still reliable and good. But our best meal of the trip was likely at Capriccio which has a nice menu to choose from and the food is not only wonderfully prepared but also elegantly served. (I’m not looking forward to hopping on the scale when I get home.)

So once again, Bonaire comes through as simply a wonderful place to spend a week. The resort is terrific, the diving is very good, the food is tasty, and you simply can’t ask for a better combination. I’m sure we’ll be going back again next year and maybe this time, YOU will come with us.

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