BONAIRE - JUNE, 2004
(Click here to see the pictures from
The short version is: We had a fabulous time.
How can you not love a place where the diving is easy, the sites readily
accessible, the visibility in excess of 100 feet, the water warm (81º),
and there are interesting things to see both above and below the water?
Our group of 13 consisted on trip leader Ken Kurtis, Vick Thomas &
Elisabeth Sykes, Jim & Diana Cooper, Wil & Linda Lemley, Jeff
Mandell, Jay Wilson, John Morgan, Stefan Mason, Robert Wagner, and Fred
Adler. Some had been to Bonaire before and for some, this was the first
trip. But all finished the trip vowing to come back again.
As you may have heard, Bonaire has a lot of things going for it, including
English being widely spoken (along with Dutch), good diving, reliable
weather, American dollars and credit cards readily accepted everywhere, it‘s
pretty easy to get around the place, and the people are very friendly.
You may have also heard about crime problems on Bonaire, specifically
stories about rental cars being broken into and things taken. And while
all the rental cars do display a sticker encouraging you to leave the
doors unlocked and leave nothing of value inside, all I can say is that in
four trips to Bonaire, I have never personally had any problems nor have I
personally run into anyone who had this happen. That‘s not to say theft
doesn’t exist, but my gut feeling is that some of the reports of “widespread
crime” are simply overblown.
Bonaire is relatively easy to get to, especially from Los Angeles. We took
the Air Jamaica redeye from LA to Montego Bay, toughed out a 5-hour
layover (on the return trip, you barely have time to change planes so it’s
a much easier journey home), and then hopped another Air Jamaica flight
straight into Bonaire. That allowed for a Saturday mid-afternoon arrival
with plenty of time to check into the hotel, pick up rental cars, and get
the mandatory orientation to the Bonaire Marine Park.
The park, officially established in 1979, rings the entire island (as well
as Klein Bonaire) from the high water mark out to a depth of roughly 200
feet. Within the confines of the Park the basic rules are: no anchoring
(moorings only - and even then, a boat is limited to 2 hours on any given
mooring), no spearfishing, no removal of anything (dead or alive) from the
water EXCEPT for garbage and trash, no contact with the reef (good
buoyancy is a must), no gloves, and no harassing the marine life
(specifically the turtles and the conchs).
Because of all of this, Bonaire truly lives up to its name of “A Diver’s
Paradise.” With 86 marked/moored sites, it means you’ve got plenty of
diving to choose from. The reefs, especially once you cross the reef crest
at 30 feet or so and start down the reef slope (most bottom out around 100’),
are in pretty decent shape. The shallower areas are definitely a bit more
beaten up by the occasional storm or rough seas. But the fish, since they’re
used to divers and not being chased (except by other fish - more on that
in a moment) are fairly easy to approach. And since most of the sites are
accessible by both boat AND from the shore (the mooring markers are all
set in 20-30 feet of water), it means you’ve got more diving choices
than you could possibly fulfill in a full week of diving (which is another
great reason that Bonaire gets a lot of repeat divers).
We stayed at Buddy’s Dive Resort (same place we stayed two years ago)
and once again were very satisfied. We had a variety of 1-bedroom and
3-bedroom apartments, each with en suite bathrooms, a living room, full
kitchen, cable TV (though it’s a tiny set - but the Lakers looked bad
even on the small screen), and balcony or patio. Each unit comes with a
vehicle (part of Buddy’s “Dive & Drive” package) for getting
around town and doing shore dives.
Speaking of which, Buddy’s has a great feature called the drive-through
air station. You simply drive up, pull the tanks you want, gauge them,
load them, and drive off. It keeps tank-hauling to a minimum. For any
shore dives done on Buddy’s house reef, you simply pick up your tanks
from the dock, gear up, and go. (The house reef is excellent, BTW,
although we thought going out and turning left side was a better dive than
out and right.) Buddy’s dive staff is on-duty from 8AM-5PM to help you
out and for after-hours dives, you’re shown the location of the “secret”
key to give you access to tanks and gear, so you really can dive anytime
Our only real complaint would be that Buddy’s gear locker room, located
on their dock, was WAY too crowded. The resort was fairly full (we were
there during the second week of the Bonaire Dive Festival) and we
frequently had trouble finding available hangers or hooks because other
divers had snagged them. Part of the problem may have been divers taking
multiple hooks and part of the problem might be not enough hooks to begin
with given the number of divers (around 100) that Buddy’s can handle.
But it also underscores what a good idea it is to bring at least a small
gear bag with you into which you can place all of your gear. That way, if
you have to leave stuff lying around, it’s all in one fairly secure
place, as well as it making it easier to throw everything either on a boat
or into the back of a car.
When you get settled in your hotel, a good idea is to make an early stop
at the local supermarket, the Cultimara, in downtown Kralendijk. We
stocked up on sodas, water, snacks, fruit, and stuff like that and put it
in our in-room refrigerators, since that was much easier and
cost-effective, as well as it gave us a stash to take with us on shore
Also be aware that most of the pricing is in NAF (Netherland Antilles
Florin), which is the local currency. But conversion is pretty easy.
Simply take the NAF price, divide by two, add 10%, and that will give you
the rough equivalent in US dollars. For instance, a can of soda in the
market was $1.25 NAF, which is about $0.70 USD. (The same can will run you
$1.50-2.00 USD at the local bars/restaurants.) But while some items might
be slightly higher, overall, the prices are pretty comparable for what you’d
expect from an island. When we ate out, lunches ranged from $8-15 USD, and
dinners in the $15-40 USD range.
And speaking of food . . .
Plan to have dinner one night at Donna & Giorgio’s, a few blocks
north of the downtown area on the main road. It’s a really good Italian
place, with a lot of outdoor seating, great food, healthy portions,
reasonable prices, and a very nice wine list. (The house Chardonnay we
thought was especially good.) They tend to fill up all the tables after
about 8PM, so either go early or late for ease of seating. Now back to the
diving, since that’s why we came to Bonaire in the first place.
Our general daily plan was for a maximum of five dives each day: two boat
dives (fresh fruit was served between dives on the boat), two shore dives,
and a shore night dive on Buddy’s house reef. That plan also gave us a
good mix of sites off of both Bonaire and Klein Bonaire, the latter of
which is only accessible by boat.
Since we had a large group, we had arranged ahead of time with Corinna and
Augusto (Buddy’s dive shop manager and assistant manager, respectively)
to have a boat to ourselves. They assigned us Sandra and Zoo as our DMs
for the week. Both were friendly and knowledgeable and both quickly got
into the good-natured ribbing and teasing that seems to be the hallmark of
most Reef Seekers trips. We also always got a kick out of Zoo’s
briefing, done with a heavy Caribbean accent, that always seemed to work
in the idea of being careful not to drift off too far or “you will visit
my home island of Curacao.” Aside from enjoying their company, they got
to know our diving interests and styles and that made for even more
One of our favorite dives was Knife on Klein Bonaire. Knife has been
closed for almost a decade and reopened only recently. When we asked Zoo
in his briefing as to why Knife had been closed, he launched into a long
story about how years ago divers would come to feed sausages to the eels.
Then one day, some divers came without sausages, and the eels - looking
for a meal - attacked one of the divers and bite off his . . . sausage.
The divers had to fight the eels off with a knife. Hence the name and the
reason for the closure.
If the inventiveness of the story weren’t enough for us, the best part
is that, with his accent, Zoo had a bit of trouble saying “sausage.”
He can’t seem to pronounce the middle of the word and so it always came
out as “sauge” (pronounced “SOW-j”). After we went “What???” a
few times and realized he meant “sausage”, the story became even more
hilarious and “sauge” became our running gag for the week, even to the
point of smuggling out sausages from breakfast, and presenting them to Zoo
Despite the perhaps questionable veracity of Zoo’s story, the dive at
Knife was simply stunning. Wow!!!!! The reef was phenomenally healthy, had
very interesting topography, and was really a great experience. A lot of
the reefs in Bonaire run in a fairly straight line, with few twists and
turns. Knife, on the other hand, wove itself in and out and the increased
topographical diversity and coral formations made for a very unique dive.
Another dive we really liked was the Salt Pier. Located in the southern
part of the island. You need permission to dive here, since it’s a
working pier (owned by Cargill salt Works - they produce 500,000 TONS of
salt each year). At Buddy’s, and I presume most other dive operations,
they’ll call each day to check to see if the Salt Pier is open or not.
If it is, our advice is to go. If you’re in Bonaire, this should be on
your “must-dive” list.
When you get to the site, you’ll see the pier about 100 yards out
sitting parallel to the shoreline, connected by a walkway/conveyer/bridge
that sits well above the water, running from the Cargill Salt Works
facility across the road, over the beach, and out to the pier. You can
start your dive under this structure, and cruise over the sandy bottom out
to the various pier pilings.
When we did this dive, we got started with a formation of 20 squid (a
squidron) in the shallows. It was simply amazing watching them cruise in
formation. First they started in a very straight line, evenly spaced.
Then, they re-formed their grouping and stacked themselves one on top of
the other along a diagonal. After that, they re-formed again into a
diamond pattern. And after that, they went back to the straight line.
Sometimes they’d approach us. Sometimes they’d jet away if we got too
close, only to return (in formation, of course) to check us out again. But
the squid aren’t the only thing the Salt Pier has going for it.
Each of the various pier pilings has something to offer. During the day,
the sunlight dappling through the pilings is in and of itself a site to
behold. In addition to the squid (which were still hanging around at the
end of the dive as well), we ran into tarpon, barracuda, schools of
snapper, various parrotfish and angelfish, and a host of others. I’m
also certain that there are seahorses lurking around there somewhere even
though we didn’t spot any. But this is a dive you can go over and over
again and is well worth the time.
Speaking of piers, we should throw in a quick word about the famous Town
Pier. This is actually a dive we avoids, not because there’s nothing to
see, but because SO many divers do it (it’s only available at night), it’s
simply too crowded and you stand a good chance of getting
kicked/pushed/shoved by other divers. But that will all change.
We were told that, effective July 1, the pier is going to be off-limits to
divers. The reason is that Bonaire is developing itself as a cruise ship
stop, and requirements of the Homeland Security folks are that piers where
cruise ships dock be secure areas. That means they don’t want divers
underneath the pier each evening doing who-knows-what. And given the
choice between the revenues generated by a hundred divers each evening, or
a thousand passengers on a luxury liner, guess who wins out? Whether or
not the pier will re-open in the off-season is anyone’s guess.
Other spots we liked included Rappel (deep sheer drop-off with not as many
fish but very impressive coral formations), Forrest (huge Black coral
trees), Larry’s Lair (just lots of great stuff to see), and The Lake (an
amazingly lovely dive that has a sand “lake” down around 100 feet, an
active and interesting drop-off and tons of activities in the shallows).
And we can’t forget the Buddy’s house reef, which always offered good
diving, whether you went left or right.
And we can’t forget the Hilma Hooker, Bonaire’s resident wreck.
A former drug-runner that was seized, the Hilma Hooker lies on her
side in 100’ of water an doffers an interesting and easy wreck dive, as
well as giving a great photo op at the prop. On top of that , the rear
area (near the prop) now has a dozen or more Sergeant major egg nest,
visible by the purple egg mass quite visible against the tan-colored hull,
and the male Sergeant major guarding the nest, who makes a run at any fish
or human who comes too close. (Thank goodness they’re small fish or this
could be a dangerous dive.)
Among the critter encounters we had, the most amazing was at Andrea I
where we encountered a fairly large school of Boga (a type of bonnetmouth)
who had been herded into a bait ball by a bunch of surrounding jacks. It
was fascinating to be able to swim into the middle of the huge mass of
fish as they darted to and fro, with the predators lurking around the
edges of the swarm hoping to snatch a meal.
We also seemed to run into more Queen angels than I remember seeing in the
past, including a “gang” of 5 Queens who hung together at one site. We
saw octopi hunting at night, numerous eels of many species both daytime
and at night, bristle worms (don’t pick them up, in case you didn’t
know, as you’ll get a sting you’ll remember for a lifetime), and the
requisite seahorses, frogfish (on the final boat dive), Spotted drums,
lobsters, barracuda, Sailfin blennies (they come out of their holes for
5-10 seconds and rapidly flash a huge dorsal fin to try to find a mate -
really interesting to watch), turtles (including a huge loggerhead),
scores of trumpet fish, an enormous (close to 6 feet long) Bluespotted
Coronetfish, and - of course - nighttime tarpon.
Whether you like it or not, whenever you do a night dive in Bonaire, the
resident tarpon on that reef IS going to be your buddy. And every time you
mention the tarpon, someone will say, “Oh yeah, that’s Charlie.” As
I recall hearing years ago, Charlie was a tarpon at Capt. Don’s who hung
with the divers. And it seems now that EVERYONE calls their tarpon
Charlie. The bottom line is that, certainly by the major hotels, each reef
has at least one resident tarpon (Buddy’s has 4 that we saw) and they’re
going to join you for your night dive. We did a night dive at Buddy’s 5
of the 7 nights we were there, and on each dive, there was at least one
tarpon - averaging about 5 feet long) that accompanied us.
The tarpon have “learned” over the years that divers with lights means
easy picking on the fish they’re hunting so they sidle right up to you,
hang at the edge of your beam, and will follow you around. It’s REALLY
neat if you’re the only group in the water, because then you stand a
good chance of attracting multiple tarpon. Once you’re used to their
presence, it’s really an interesting way to dive. In fact on one dive,
we had three tarpon with us for the entire 45 minutes, one on our left,
one on our right, and one slightly ahead of us.
My observation (purely unscientific) is that the tarpon don’t react to
fish being lit up as much as they do to movement. A number of times, a
tasty tang would appear in my light and the tarpon would swim right over
the top of it. But, if the tang moved, then tarpon seemed to sense the
movement and got VERY interested.
It makes sense when you think about it, since tarpon normally hunt at
night so they’d have to be attuned to movements and vibrations in the
water instead of relying on eyesight. And perhaps they merely use the
divers not for our lights, but because we’re likely to spook fish into
moving and then the tarpon can zero in.
Other things to do while in Bonaire include observing the wild (and fairly
tame) donkeys that are all over the island, visiting the Slave Huts that
are a monument/reminder to Bonaire’s darker past, and - of course -
looking for flamingoes, primarily found in the salt evaporation pans
surrounding the Cargill Salt Works. A willingness to drive a fair distance
around the island, a bit of patience, and a long camera lens will all
result in a successful endeavor.
In short, Bonaire offers some great diving choices for everyone from the
raw beginner to the seasoned pro. Although there is a similarity
reef-to-reef, and it’s not a place where you’re going to find a lot of
big animals, it’s certainly a place where you can still come away with
some incredible diving experiences and memories that will last a lifetime.
This was our fourth trip to Bonaire and we’ll plan to go back again
sometime in the near future. Whether you’re doing it with us or on your
own, Bonaire is a place that definitely deserves an entry in your dive