BONAIRE - MAY 22-27, 2022

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

This was an interesting trip that started with me (accidentally) punching a woman in the nose at the Bonaire airport and ended with a frogfish (who I didn’t punch in the nose).

The accidental punch was when we arrived and one of our people asked me where to put their cart as we loaded up bags to the Buddy Dive bus. I gestured, “Over there” and didn’t see the woman walking up behind me whose nose tried to occupy the same space as the back of my hand. No blood, thank goodness. The frogfish sighting was quite deliberate but we had to work for it a little bit. But it was a fabulous way to end the trip. (More on that later.)

This was our 18th trip to Bonaire and our first since 2018. We first went in the early 90s and have been going back almost every 12-24 months months every since. Although our initial stays were at Sand Dollar Resort, for about the last twenty years or so, we’ve always stayed at Buddy Dive (which is right next to Sand Dollar) and which is currently probably the largest dive operation on the island of Bonaire.

Interestingly, even though the resort was full it didn’t feel very crowded. We had a boat to ourselves which is always nice (thanks to good friend and dive shop manager Augusto Montbrun) but even when we were doing dives from the Buddy dock on the house reef, or getting tanks at the drive-through air station, or going to the buffet breakfast (which is part of everyone’s package), it never felt (to me at least) like the resort was crowded, let alone fully booked.

Some of that is actually as good by-product of COVID mitigation measures as Augusto told me they’re now doing a better job of spreading out the boat dives with lots of afternoon 2-tank offerings in addition to the morning ones, and they’ve changed some other things that tend to discourage divers from clumping together all at once. So it’s helpful both from a lack-of-overcrowding standpoint as well as COVID-safety standpoint.

Speaking of COVID, All COVID restrictions in Bonaire, as well as at Buddy Dive, have been lifted. It's relatively life-as-it-used-to-be now and that was a nice break from the “new normal,” certainly as we’ve come to know it here in Los Angeles.

On the way in, you had to fill out a Bonairean health declaration on-line and which we printed out to take with us, since they also wanted to see it at LAX as well as when we landed in Bonaire. Around the island, 95% of the people were unmasked. The masked ones were mainly employees at resorts and some restaurants.

The day before we left, we all went and got COVID tests across the street from Buddy Dive at the Bon Bida Test Center. They handed us a printed copy 10 minutes later and e-mailed us the info as well. $52.50 with the Buddy Dive 20% discount (normally it’s $65). We were all negative but on the bus to the airport, I did overhear someone say that two people in their group tested positive and were being quarantined. So this thing ain't over. Since everyone on the plane had just tested negative, most of us were unmasked for the flight to Miami but once we landed and went into the main terminal, we were back in uncharted territory so I re-masked for the rest of the journey home.

None of this means the island wasn’t busy. Our flights down (part of the group took American from Miami and some took United from Newark) were packed. The island overall was definitely busy. One day we passed by one of the popular shore diving spots and there were nine vehicles parked there with divers gearing up. The day we dove the Salt Pier (more on that in a bit), it was busy – but not overly so – with divers.

Our experiences with the Avalon Underwater Cleanup, Chamber Day 2022, and the Scuba Show seem to indicate that divers as a group are eager and champing at the bit to get active again. And this certainly was reflected in the overall diving activity we saw during our week in Bonaire.

We didn’t have any serious weather issues but there was more wind than usual, which chopped things up the first day or two, and it was overcast a lot. (Ironically, the nicest day was our departure day when it was blue skies and a wisp of wind.) But the wind really made things pleasant temperature wise as the days were in the mid-80s and the evenings mid-70s. Water temp was a steady 82-83º and viz ranged anywhere from 60-100 feet with some particulate in the water in most places.

Our group this year was nine strong: Cathy & Steve Kay (Bonaire newbies), and seven Bonaire repeaters including Marilyn Dahle, Susan Oder, Lou Weisberg, Laurie Kasper, Tamar Toister, Marilyn Lawrence, and me (Ken Kurtis).

But how times have changed as we get older. When I first started going to Bonaire in my much-younger days, we generally did five dives each day: two morning boat dives, break for lunch, two afternoon shore dives at various sites, break for dinner, and a night dive. As times moved on that became two morning boat dives, a longer lunch break, an afternoon dive, and a dusk dive (6PM) rather than a true night dive. With this group three-a-day seemed the norm with two boat dives, one shore dive (many times on the Buddy house reef), and only one dusk dive. I happened to look at my 2002 report and I did 27 dives that week. This year over the same span of time, I did 17. But it’s all about quality, not quantity, and Bonaire certainly delivers on that count.

That consistency is both one of its strengths and one of its weaknesses. There is a similarity – not so much a sameness – to the various dive sites and what you’ll see. The differences site-to-site in the same general area tend to be rather subtle. The southern sites are different from the northern sites which are different from the sites on Klein Bonaire (right across the channel from Buddy). And there are unique dives within each area. Bruce’s Rappel to the north (recently renamed after the late Bruce Bowker, one of Bonaire’s founding fathers) features massive coral structures and what amounts to a wall dive. The Salt Pier to the south offers an amazing array of critters hanging around the various areas of the structure. And Carl’s Hill on Klein is a mini-wall.

But a lot of what makes diving a specific site in Bonaire special or not is based on what critters you find on the dive. The late Buddy Dive guide extraordinaire Murph Henar used to refer to them as his “special friends.” Usually that meant a seahorse or a frogfish, but it could also be a Tarpon, Spotted Drums in adult or juvy phases (and we had more of both on this trip than I think I’ve ever seen before), squid, turtles, and a host of others.

And speaking of special friends, there’s even a site called Something Special (which was also one of Murph’s favs). The way it got its name is because of a bootleg liquor that was produced there called “Something Special” but the site really is a special one to dive and we were able to hit it on a very good day.

Something Special is a few minutes south of Buddy Dive and immediately south of the entrance to the Harbor Village Marina. That means you need to be aware of boat traffic when you dive it – even though from a boat you’re tied to a mooring – because some boaters simply aren’t paying attention to divers. When we did it, I saw the bottom-side of a couple of boats passing overhead that cut in between us and land in the shallow part of the reef.

But the site certainly lived up to its name for us. One thing I really wanted to find – and which I’d seen there and only there before – was a small colorful Angelfish called a Cherub Angelfish. They’re generally at this site around 90 feet deep, they’re maybe half an inch long, they constantly flit around the rubble bottom making them really difficult to shoot, but their coloration is gorgeous with a predominantly bright blue body, a yellow face, and a bright blue ring around their eyes. When I’ve gone to find them in the past, I’ve seen maybe five or six individuals. This time, there were dozens and dozens of them. It was really nice to see.

And that brings up another question we discussed on this trip: In the time Bonaire was closed due to the COVID pandemic, how did the lack of divers change things? Could this account for the proliferation of Cherub Angles as well as other critters we spotted throughout the week? Because there were other animals that we’d run in to, most notably the Spotted Drums, who in the past were very skittish when they saw divers but now seem to be comfortable hanging out more exposed. Could the lack of divers for an extended period of time make them “forget” that they’re wary of us? It’s certainly speculation on my part but I hear from friends all over the world that they are noticing changes in fish behavior that they attribute to a lack of divers so why should Bonaire be any different?

Back to our Something Special dive, the other nice thing we can guarantee seeing there is a field of Garden Eels, also down in the 70-90 foot area. You start the dive from the mooring line and descend towards them. If you move slow and stay low, they don’t immediately all retreat into their holes in the sand. The Garden Eels also mark the spot when you turn left and then cruise the front side of the site, seeing many of the usual critters. We found a huge Green Moray Eel, plenty of large orange Elephant Ear sponges, Goatfish, Azure Vase sponges, Lizardfish, Rock Hinds, and more.

When you make the turn at the halfway point of the dive (“spin the dive” is a phrase we use to indicate you’re going to go back the way you came, but at a shallower depth), now you start to see Giant Anemones (I’ve also seen them called Bulb Anemones) in the 20-30 foot range. Within the tentacles of those anemones reside various species of teeny shrimp including Pederson’s Cleaner Shrimp as well as Squat Anemone Shrimp (aka “Sexy Shrimp” because they advertise their cleaning services and availability by seductively waving their arches tails).

But then, as you find yourself under the mooring buoy and your boat, you cross a sand channel to a rock wall that has tons of juvies and other small fish that use the place like a nursery and which could really be a dive all unto itself.

So for all kinds of reasons, Something Special really is something special.

Another special dive we did was the Salt Pier. This is the working pier of the Cargill Salt Works so you can only dive it on days when there isn’t a boat tied up to it. The overall site consists seven platforms (we hit five of them) that are all set on pilings that angle down to the rocky bottom. The structures are much like the Eureka, Ellen, & Elly oil rigs off of Huntington Beach but in Bonaire the bottom is only at 40-60 feet deep. But the entire area is festooned with life.

The big treat for us was at the start of the dive when we descended into 11 feet of water and were greeted by a huge squadron of squid (I call it a “squidron”). When I say huge, in one of my pictures I was able to count 27 of them. They seemed curious about us and would approach as a group, but then back away if they felt nervous. We spent a good 5-10 minutes of the dive with them and it was a great way to start.

Salt Pier definitely produced a bonanza of critters as we went from platform to platform. The three most common Angelfish were there: French, Queen, and Rock Beauty. The other thing I like about the dive there is that you get various schools of fish, including some that don’t normally school, hanging out. We had Goatfish, Snappers, and even a school of Blackbar Soldierfish.

There are sponges galore attached to all of the pilings which probably makes it as good place to find Frogfish but I couldn’t locate any. Piers like this also provide good habitat for Seahorses but again, we struck out.

And we were pleased, as we kicked in after our 55-minute dive, to find our squidron greeting us again, this time with the addition of what appeared to be some baby squid. I found that interesting because squid don’t nurture their young. They usually mate, lay eggs, and then die. So I’m not sure why the babies were mixed in with the adults but it was cool to see.

There was one more treat awaiting me on the kick in. The aim, because there’s no real surf like we’d have here in SoCal, is to kick is as close as you can to shore. Sometimes this means you’re only in a few feet of water and only a few feet from the shoreline. On this dive, at a depth of five feet and only a few feet off of the shoreline, I ran into a tornado of Bonefish who were circling, circling, circling. Even better – for me as a fish geek anyhow – was that there was a Palometa Jack in the middle of the Bonefish, participating in the swirl. Way cool, and unusual to see both of them.

I’m OK at spotting things and pointing them out but the Buddy Dive guides, who dives these sites regularly and share info with each other, are the masters. One thing I noticed this time was that, at least with the folks we had, the guides were much more attuned to actually guiding and pointing things out. On past trips, we’ve had dive guides who were no more than stopwatches: They signaled when to spin the dive and then again when to end it. Well, I can tell time and I know how to count so that really was never much help. But we had a number of guides this time who broke that stopwatch mold. Notable was Aitzel (pronounced like “8-zell” with emphasis on the “8”) which was downright giddy anytime he found something to share with us. (And he was also the one who found the end-of-trip Frogfish. And I’m saving that dive for the end of this report.)

I mentioned Bruce’s Rappel earlier and that deserves some attention as it’s a very unique site and can be difficult to dive, even from a boat. On the day we dove it, it was a bit rough and it took us three attempts to get the boat hooked to the mooring line because of the chop. You are also secured deceptively close to the island itself because while you would think the swell would push the boat into the sheer rock wall, it also bounces off the rocks and pushes the boat away, so the reflected swell cancels out the incoming swell and the boat sits nicely parallel to the vertical rock wall. This is the genesis of the name of the site because the early divers had to literally rappel down the cliff to do the dive. But once we descended a few feet, you’d never know there was anything going on overhead because underwater it was all serene and calm.

Rappel doesn’t seem to have as many fish as other sites do but it does have very impressive coral structures. It probably has some of the healthiest coral and most diverse range of species of any area in Bonaire. It always makes for a pleasant dive and when we spin the dive and get back into the shallows, especially under the mooring area, there are fans and soft corals that are swaying in the mild surge that gives it all a very ethereal feel.

The Buddy Dive house reef is no slouch either and we dove that plenty. You kick out from the dock and as the reef slopes down at a depth of around 35 feet, you choose to either go left or right. To the left is more of a wall-ish dive and to the right is more slope-y. We had excellent dives in both directions including more squid (to the right near the bow of the Machaca wreck) and huge tarpon during the day (to the left). No matter which direction you choose, it’s a dive that doesn’t disappoint.

We definitely saved the best for last. I always ask the guides if they have sites where they have “special friends” and it really puts a lot of pressure on them. These are wild animals, not Disney creatures, and they don’t always stay in the same spot. So while you may know that you’re in a seahorse or frogfish area, but that doesn’t mean you’re going to actually find them.

But Aitzel was pretty sure he could find a frogfish at a spot on Klein called Mi Dushi which, in the local language, means “My love” or “My sweet.” It’s a term of endearment. This was also going to be Laurie Kasper’s 500th dive so we thought what better way to commemorate that than with a special friend?

This dive was not without an adventure getting it going because when we pulled up, there was already a Buddy Dive boat on the mooring. Since we were only doing one dive on this final dive day, we had left the dock about an hour late. So the divers from the moored boat would soon be coming up and we decided that we would do a live-drop – easy to do with a small group of divers – up-current of the mooring, drift down towards it, finish the dive underneath (which is where the Frogfish was supposed to be), and all would be good.

Easier said than done.

The wind played a little havoc with our drop plan as we put Aitzel in the water with one diver but then the boat got blown out too much so we had to reposition. In that time, Aitzel and diver #1 had drifted downcurrent, closer than we wanted to be, so they had to kick and re-po too. We repeated this three or four times until we finally got everyone in the water. Whew!!! Now all we – “we” being Aitzel – had to do was guide the group and then find the elusive yellow Frogfish who generally lived in a green/yellow sponge pretty much right under the mooring. So we’d hopefully find him near the end of the dive.

Along the way, we had a very pleasant drift and saw the usual creatures. And then, 36 minutes in – VOILA!!! – Aitzel triumphantly and excitedly pointed out the Frogfish. As you’ll see from the pictures, once you knew he was there, he was fairly easy to see. He was large for a Frogfish, about the size of your palm and out-stretched fingers. He was also perched very nicely so he was easy to distinguish from the sponge that provided him camouflage.

He even seemed to tolerate our gaggle of divers very well. Many times when Frogfish realize they’ve been spotted, they may – slowly – move off and try to find another spot. Not this guy. He stayed plastered against the side of the sponge. At one point he turned himself 180 degrees, and then a little later turned himself back. And that action allowed those watching to see why Frogfish are sometimes also referred to as Handfish because his pectoral fins are like little hands that he uses to brace himself against the sponge and, when need be, to “walk” to a new spot.

So we were able to spend the last 24 minutes of the dive with him alternately taking turns to get a good close look, or fire off a few shots, or take a short video. There was also a lot of other stuff to see in the shallows – like Barnacle Blennies, Flamingo Tongues, and more – but the Frogfish was certainly the highlight of the dive and maybe even the trip.

So overall, a really nice trip. The diving is good if not spectacular and doesn’t disappoint. Buddy Dive runs a really to-notch operation and they’ll try to honor whatever request you have. And especially when you realize that many of you haven’t been diving in two years or so due to the pandemic, going to a place like Bonaire – and specifically Buddy Dive – might be just the tonic you need to get your diving back up to speed.

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