(Click here to see the pictures from this trip.)

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 you want.

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 dives.

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 enjoyable dives.

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 mid-dive underwater.

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 log.

© 2012 Reef Seekers Dive Co. All Rights Reserved.