BONAIRE - APRIL 14-21, 2018

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

Although firmly situated in the Caribbean, the week we were there, it seemed like Bonaire had become a suburb of Chicago, aka The Windy City (or in this case, the Windy Island). More on that in a moment.

Our group this year was eight strong: Stuart  Berryhill, Paul Weers, Jay Wilson, Marilyn Lawrence, Di Krall, Susy Horowitz, Marilyn Dahle, and me (Ken Kurtis). As is our custom when in Bonaire, we stayed with our good friends (and fabulous facility) Buddy Dive.

We love staying at Buddy Dive for a number of reasons. First and foremost is the wonderful dive operation under the direction of Augusto Montbrun. They have numerous boats, they run on time, the Divemasters are generally pretty good at pointing things out, and they always give our groups a boat by ourselves which we certainly appreciate.

The resort itself is rather nice. Nothing fancy, but very comfortable and functional. We were in two 2-bedroom apartments (#509 & #611), each with two bathrooms, a living room, fully-functional kitchen, and a balcony in #611 and a patio/garden for #509. #509 used to be – if I’m recalling correctly – the private residence of the previous owners of Buddy Dive but it’s now been converted into a 2-bedroom unit. #611 is a standard upstairs 2-bedroom unit. One thing we liked about that is, to avoid air-conditioning created condensation, we could safely keep all our camera gear out on the table on the balcony and used that as both our photo room and a semi-private phone booth when you wanted to make a call and not disturb everyone else.

The other nice thing about Buddy is that the typical package is what they call “Dive & Drive” in that you get both a room and a vehicle. We had two 4-passenger pickups, each with air-conditioning and a radio (which none of them had a few years ago), and a large cargo bed that easily accommodated all the gear. So we could use the truck for both transport to a shore-diving site, for going to dinner, for a supermarket run (Van Den Tweel is still the market of choice), or for sightseeing (and we got both flamingoes & burros along the way).

Quick culinary notes: (1) Pasa Bon Pizza has been sold and moved to downtown and the lasagna is still pretty good, (2) The Ribs Factory is now known as King of Ribs and was better this year than last, (3) An fairly large open-air place called The Islander is now where City Café used to be, and (4) We had a really good meal at the open-air Karle's Beach Bar, which on the tourist pier downtown on Kaya J.N.E. Craane.

BTW, cruise ships are still coming into Bonaire but not every day. Most of the cruise passengers don’t venture much further than the downtown area and any who are diving are scheduled on cruise-ship-only boats from the local shops (not just Buddy Dive) and they generally go to some lesser sites so they don’t really interfere with those of us making Bonaire home for a week.

One realization that hit me this trip was how the logistics of the trips have changed since we first started coming here almost 30 years ago. Back then, a 5-dive day was pretty typical: 2 boat dives in the morning, grab a quick lunch, and then load up the trucks for two shore dives in the afternoon, break for dinner, and then a 9PM-ish night dive. Rinse and repeat.

But as we age, our tolerance for that schedule seems to wane. Now, it’s still two boat dives in the morning along with some grumbling (“8:30???? Can’t we go a little later???”). That’s followed by a leisurely lunch, perhaps a nap, a debate about whether or not we should drive somewhere or just enjoy the convenience of diving the house reef at Buddy (which is actually quite good), debating whether or not we’ll do a dusk dive around 6PM, and then going to dinner in town where adult beverages can be enjoyed which – OOOOPS!!! – negates the idea of a later night dive. I think I ended up doing 18 dives on this trip (in the good ol’ days I’d do 25-30) and that was about the average for everyone else as well. But that’s also the nice thing about getting older: You don’t feel quite as compelled to rack up the numbers.

One new thing they’re doing at Buddy which I think is a great idea is that the DM/guides now wear an orange rash guard over their wetsuit when they’re leading a dive. This makes it very easy to see where the guide is as the dive progresses (and the group spreads out a bit). Nice touch, especially when they’re looking for special friends.

Another nice thing they’ve done at Buddy’s – which they started last year – is replacing most of the dirt roads with brick-paved ones. Certainly cuts down on the dust in the air from the trucks driving around.

There’s also an increased emphasis and vigilance (though it never got too heavy-handed) about protecting the reef. This means don’t touch the coral (not even with a single finger), watch your knees and fin tips, practice good buoyancy, don’t use your hands too much (hand use is a mark of negative buoyancy), and just generally be aware of where you are at all times. It also means if you’re going in for a closer look at something, try to do it with a head-down fin-tips-up position, and make sure you have an exit strategy (big breath to make you rise, or be able to kick backwards and back out) before you go zooming in. Pushing off the reef is not encouraged.

“No Gloves Allowed” has always been the watchword in Bonaire to help enforce the no-touching-the-coral rules. And it makes sense. With gloves on, you are more likely to grab on to a coral head or something to steady yourself because you can do so with impunity. If you do that without gloves, you’re likely to start decorating your fingers with tiny coral cuts.

But exceptions to the glove rule have been made in the past if you REALLY needed to wear gloves to protect your hands. Usually, all you did was tell your dive operation what the need was and they’d say “OK” and that was that. No longer.

Apparently, STINAPA (the government agency that oversees the Marine Park) has been cracking down on things in the last few years. No longer can food waste just be thrown off of the boat. No longer can you feed the French Angels at Forrest who love watermelon. They called a DM on the carpet for tracing his name on a sea cucumber by wiping away algae. (Of course, it’s OK to spear Lionfish which has always seemed like a logical bobble to me but that’s a while different article.)

So you can still get permission to wear gloves in the Marine Park but now it has to be for a MEDICAL reason. That means you need a dcotor’s prescription/note, and the waiver has to be formally issued by STINAPA in the form of a letter.

Marilyn Lawrence has such a need in that she’s extremely sensitive to any stingy things in the water to the point where she carries an Epi-Pen with her at all times. Plus, she’s been given glove dispensation in Bonaire before. But this time, we had to jump through a few hoops. And while we sort of knew this ahead of time, the hoops were a bit more specific than we’d anticipated.

So Marilyn & I showed up at the STINAPA office (adjacent to Oil Slick – about a 5-minute drive from Buddy’s) at 8AM Monday morning (our boat wasn’t until 8:30AM) with her Epi-Pen prescription and some other stuff and thought we’d be issued a letter pro formna. No dice.

What we were told (nicely) that Marilyn was going to have to do was get was an actual doctor’s prescription that said something on the order of “Needs to wear gloves for medical reasons.” So we trooped off to the Urgent Care clinic to see the doctor but he couldn’t see her until 2:45PM that afternoon. That meant Marilyn missing most of the Monday dives.

I dropped her back off at the clinic later that afternoon (and then I went back to Buddy’s for our afternoon boat), she waited until around 3:30PM to be seen and, once she explained her situation to the doctor and he was convinced she wasn’t faking it, he wrote a prescription that said “Marilyn Lawrence should wear gloves while scuba diving for strict medical reasons.” Of course, by the time she got back to Buddy’s, the STINAPA office had closed for the day (they go home at 4PM)so we had to troop back up there Tuesday morning to present the prescription and get a letter.

So the lesson here is that I you truly have a medical reason that you need to wear gloves, you will need an actual prescription to do so. You can also likely have your local doctor do this for you and you may even be able to set this up ahead of time via e-mail. You can also wait until you arrive in Bonaire but be aware that the STINAPA office is closed on Sunday so the first time you could do this would be Monday and it may cause you to miss a few dives to get everything in the proper order. The good news is that the letter is now good for five years (it previously was only good a year). But the bad news you need to get it and then jeep it with you anytime you’re diving, which means make multiple copies of the original in case they start getting wet. Once the letter is in hand, you’re good to go diving.

Speaking of diving . . . we did some.

I thought the reefs overall were in pretty good shape. Bonaire was one of the first places in the world to declare itself a marine sanctuary with all the incumbent rules about moorings and don’t-touch and everything else, and that’s obviously paid off. The corals on the reefs are very healthy and there are plenty of fish. (Maybe not Maldives-level fish, but a good number.)

In fact, the first treat we got was on our checkout dive on Day 1 on the Buddy Dive house reef where we spotted close to a dozen tarpon just hanging out in the daytime. Normally, you MIGHT occasionally see one during the day but they are more known as nocturnal creatures. So it was quite a treat to see them during daylight hours and in such numbers.

One thing we DIDN’T see this time which I hoped we’d see was the River of Fish. For the past few years, it seems that an endless stream of Creole Wrasse make their way past Buddy’s heading north daily at dusk. It’s been a really amazing and wondrous thing to observe over the years. But they were not evident this time. We saw plenty of Creole Wrasse but not the nightly parade.

We also didn’t see a lot of Lionfish. There’s a quite active lionfish-culling movement in Bonaire so this could be somewhat due to that or somewhat due to them not having adapted as well in Bonaire as it’s feared they have in other regions of the Caribbean. Over the course of our week, I personally saw only three Lionfish, and two of them were fairly small and seemed some skittish and nervous when we approached.

Unlike Lionfish, the Parrotfish population in Bonaire is quite robust and numerous. And there are many different species spotted as well: Stoplight, Princess, Queen, Striped, Redband, and others. There were flitting about crunching corals, and expelling sand.

It was also very nice to see lots and lots of Spotted Drums at the various sites. The Spotted Drum, even though it can be found elsewhere in the Caribbean, has long been thought to be Bonaire’s “home” fish. Some years, you don’t see many. This year, we saw plenty of adults (and many out in the open instead of hiding in rock crevices), lots of juvies, and even lots of teeny-tiny ones. So this all bodes well for the Spotted Drum population of Bonaire.

Even though we had mostly lovely dives and great fish and coral, the conditions were not optimal while we were there which was mainly due to a persistent wind. Bonaire is known to be in the trade winds path so you normally expect that there was be light wind coming out of the Northeast at around 10mph. What we got was seven days of strong wind coming out of the east, generally running 20mph fairly consistently with occasional gusts up to 30mph. This may have lowered the water temps a bit (I read 80-81 on my gauges which was the same as last year just felt colder this year - maybe I'm getting old???) and while we usually had 60-80’ vis, we also had some spots where there was lower vis and the water looked a little milky.

The wind was accompanied by cloud cover but the upside of all of this was that the air temp was just a bit cooler, so instead of walking around dripping sweat with hotter temps and less wind, it was fairly comfortable. And the persistent wind kept any bugs at bay. Interestingly on our Saturday departure day, the wind died down and the cloud cover was much less and you could REALLY feel the difference.

But the wind also made the surface choppy and that affected some of the dive sites we could visit. It made for an especially interesting dive at Rappel where the chop was really slamming the boat left and right once we tied up to the mooring line. We knew we needed to do a quick entry but we didn’t realize the chop was going to be so strong that it actually snapped the mooring line. All of a sudden, our boat was free-floating towards the rock wall with divers already in the water in between. Not good.

But our DM/captain Craig was quick to the throttle and we avoided a crash (and we didn’t slice-and-dice any divers with the prop), Craig motioned the in-water divers to go down, re-positioned and then live-dropped everyone else, and once underneath you had no inkling of the surface chaos so the dive itself was quite nice. At the end of the dive DM Laurent (who was the in-water DM/guide) got everyone together, directed all to hold on to each other, Craig got the boat in close and threw out a tag line, I got on board to help divers up and Craig held the boat in position while Laurent pulled off fins and shoved finless divers to the swim step. It all worked out well and kudos to the group. It also underscores that when conditions get a little gnarly, it pays to listen to your dive leaders. We really DO know a thing or two about all of this and following our instructions can make a difficult situation much easier.

The flip side of that was a wonderful dive we had at South Bay, which is on Klein Bonaire. The dive was  nice enough with a teeny-tiny baby Spotted Drum and a Sharptailed Eel, but what REALLY made it special were the four Squid that we came across at the end of the dive. And they seemed almost as curious as us as we did about them. We spent a good ten minutes with them (based on my photo time-stamps) and what was most intriguing was how they stayed in formation, generally in a straight line and moving all together. Very nice to observe.

Another special experience was the appropriately-named site called Somethin’ Special, which is just south of Buddy’s near the entrance to the marina. We started off with a Hawksbill Turtle meandering around at 80 feet, then swam by the garden of resident Garden Eels, had plenty of Angelfish, Spotted Drums, small Cleaner Shrimp, a Peacock Flounder, and more. And we ended the dive seeing a Lizardfish strike a Needlefish from behind and catch it, but not quite all the way as the needle was still sticking out of its mouth, and you could see the rest of the fish bulging through the belly of the Lizardfish (photos of this are on SmugMug). We followed this guy around for a while as he tried to complete his capture and we thought there were times when the Needlefish might even emerge unscathed. For everyone (except the Needlefish), this dive was truly “Somethin’ Special.”

As I mentioned earlier, we didn’t do a lot of “true” shore dives but visited both Andrea II and Alice in Wonderland, as well as made numerous dives on Buddy’s Reef, which also blends into La Machaca at Captain Don’s when you go north and Bari Reef at Sand Dollar when you go south. But go straight out and the most difficult decision is whether to turn left or turn right. You can’t go wrong.

In fact, you just can’t generally go wrong with Bonaire and Buddy Dive. Even though we didn’t have an optimal week conditions-wise, we had a great time, made a number of really good dives (as hopefully you will tell from, the pictures), and renewed old friendships and made some new ones.

If you’re looking for a place that’s fairly easy to get to (United flies through Newark and Houston, Delta goes through Atlanta, and American starts flying in from Miami in June), then Bonaire might be the ideal place for you. And you certainly can’t go wrong with Buddy Dive.

Check out the pix at DIVE-TRIP-PHOTOS-ALL/2018-DIVE-TRIPS/BONAIRE-APRIL-2018/ and if you have any questions, let me know.

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