BONAIRE - August, 2006

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

If you're looking for a place with healthy reefs, easy diving, a respect for conservation, and where English is widely spoken, put Bonaire on your list of places to visit. This marked our fifth trip to this region of the Netherland Antilles (located about 60 north of the Venezuelan coast) and the bottom line is that we wouldn't keep returning if we didn't like what we saw.

One thing we DIDN'T like this year was what it takes to get to Bonaire. This has nothing to do with the new stricter TSA-mandated carry-on rules, which went into effect the day before we left Los Angeles. In fact, getting through LAX was a breeze, taking no more than 15 minutes from curbside arrival to making through the TSA security checkpoint. They were well-organized and passengers knew not to bring liquids and other prohibited items, so it all went very smoothly. It was equally smooth at the gate, where they added a hand search of all carry-on luggage (repeated again when we changed planes in Houston - although not on our journey back home) but they were well-staffed and well-prepared.

My complaint is with the Continental Airlines schedule from L.A. to Bonaire, with a plane change in Houston. We used to be able to take an Air Jamaica redeye through Montego Bay and connected with a late-morning flight into Bonaire, arriving mid-afternoon Saturday, which allowed for a leisurely check-in and dinner, along with a good night's sleep, leaving us well-rested and well-nourished to start diving Sunday morning. The return flight left mid-afternoon the following Saturday to Montego Bay where you had a short layover and changed to a non-stop to L.A., arriving around 9PM Saturday night, leaving Sunday to do wash, catch up, and stuff like that. But not anymore.

Air Jamaica saw fit to move the Montego Bay to L.A. flight up and hour and a half, so it now leaves 5 minutes before the flight to Bonaire arrives in Montego Bay. So now there's no way to leave Bonaire on Air Jamaica without doing an overnight in Montego Bay. Good for the Jamaican local economy, bad for divers. Enter Continental.

They recently added a non-stop from Houston but it looks like it was planned by the Marquis de Sade. We left L.A. on a 5PM flight to Houston and then changed planes for a redeye into Bonaire (you only have 75 minutes so itís tight, but doable) . Unfortunately, the redeye arrives at 5:15AM.

If you're like me and canít sleep at all or canít sleep well on planes, it essentially means you arrive at dawn dead tired. You're met at the airport and taken to the hotel but, because the outbound guests have just departed, the rooms aren't ready. (Not really the hotel's fault and they cope as best they can.) So you're left with some time to kill which can be significant. In our case, two of our six rooms were ready at 9AM, two were ready at 10:30AM, and two werenít ready until after Noon because those guests had a mid-afternoon flight. (Ironically, the Air Jamaica flight into Montego Bay.)

And then there's the question of what to do about the diving. You now have a full day on Saturday available to dive but you're also dead-tired, which isn't the greatest condition in which to be diving. (On the back end, since you now leave at 7:30AM the following Saturday - and have to be at the airport at 4:45AM to check in - the Continental schedule screws up your Friday diving depending on how much time you want to give between your last dive and your first airplane flight. In case youíre wondering, we did one dive Friday morning and that was it, allowing for a 21-hour surface interval until we flew. D.A.N.'s current recommendation is at least 18 hours.) What we ended up doing was arranging to have our Marine Park Orientation (required of all divers) at 2PM, our check-out dive (required of all divers) at 4PM, and then we had a leisurely dinner before collapsing exhausted around 8:30PM.

So while we're glad to be able to get to Bonaire in one straight shot, we really weren't all that happy with the physical price we had to pay to do it. There's not much we can do about it for now, but you should be aware of it if you're planning a Bonaire trip. (Starring in December, Continental will add a Sunday non-stop to Bonaire from Newark, New Jersey, and it will arrive at . . . 5:30AM. Sounds like the Marquis is still in charge of their schedule.)

With all that being said, we were excited to be in Bonaire and diving once again with our friends at Buddy Dive. Our group this year consisted of 18 people, some veterans of Bonaire trips past and some new to the region (and even one newly-certified diver). The group consisted of Jim & Diana Cooper, Wil & Linda Lemley, Regan & Julie Steelman, Liz Koskenmaki & Mike Badberg, Sari Hazan, Susy Horowitz, Linda Whitehead & Tamar Toister, Bob Nankin, Pat O'Brien, Linda Gorman, Denise & Kevin Lawrence (Kevin was our sole non-diver but he snorkeled a few days), and trip leader Ken Kurtis (who's also writing this report).

At Buddy's we had a variety of 1-bedroom and 3-bedroom apartments. All have kitchens, living rooms with TV (cable - lots of choices) and telephone, and bathrooms for each bedroom. The bedrooms are all air-conditioned but the rest of the unit is not. However, some of our 1-bedroom divers just left the door open and the AC on "high" and that seemed to cool the whole place down. The 1-bedrooms are all on the ground floor and have a patio. The 3-bedrooms are on the second (and third) floor and there's a balcony off of the living room and balconies off of each of the upper-floor bedrooms. (We had booked 2-bedroom units so getting a 3-bedroom for the same price was a really good deal.)

Buddy recently installed Wi-Fi which is available in 3-hour blocks for $8.40/block. You need to be either in the bar or the restaurant to use it (theyíre working on getting a stronger signal so you can do it from your room) but the price seemed reasonable and the speed was actually fairly decent. And for those of us who still like to stay connected while we're away, it was a nice thing to have available.

We were on Buddy's "Dive & Drive" package which meant that each room had a vehicle assigned to it. You pay for the gas, but it gives you the mobility to really explore Bonaire and do shore dives at sites other than the house reef (which is very good, but there are other good choices too). Most of the other bigger hotel and operators now also seem to offer packages that include a vehicle. Whatever the case, when you're going to Bonaire, you'd really like to have a car.

And once again, I have to mention that while I've read about the crime problems and break-ins with vehicles in Bonaire, Iíve yet to experience it myself. That doesnít mean you leave your Rolex in the car while you're out doing a dive. And even though I have a friend whose hotel room was broken into the night before they departed Bonaire (this was a few months ago), it still seems to me that tourist crime is probably no more of a problem in Bonaire than in any other tourist destination where the visitors can be easy marks. Just use your head and some common sense.

We mentioned that we stayed at Buddy Dive and once again it was an excellent operation from the dive shop staff to the hotel staff to the restaurant staff and everyone else that makes the place run. Despite our complaints about the early arrival, the hotel staff did their best to accommodate everyone, making sure breakfast was being served when we arrived, getting towels for people who wanted to snorkel or use the pools before their rooms were ready, and just generally trying to make the best of things. And we were there during a hectic week for them as they were fully booked with two other large groups (besides us) staying with them. But they were quite accommodating and dive shop manager Augusto Montbrun Segini (assisted by Sandra Blonk & Martin Cicillia) keeps things humming.

We certainly appreciated the fact that we had a boat assigned specifically to us (one of the advantages of traveling as a group as opposed to booking things on your own) which meant we went to the dives sites we wanted to go to and could leave a little earlier (8AM) when the site was distant (like Karpata and Bloodlet), normal time (8:30AM) when we went over to Klein Bonaire, and later (9AM) when we did our single dive on the Hilma Hooker.

Our plan was to do two boats dives each morning (chilled, sliced watermelon is offered between dives), return to the dock around 12:30PM, have lunch (many of us went into town to get Subway sandwiches because you could eat half the 12-inch one and then still have a sandwich for the next day thanks to the in-room refrigerators), and then have time for two afternoon dives, followed by dinner and a night dive or sometimes a twilight dive and then dinner. (And one night, we even did a midnight dive. People ask, "Why?" And the answer is, "Because we could." Nothing out-of-the-ordinary, but sort of cool to be diving at midnight and to take advantage of Bonaire's pledge of 24-hours-per-day-diving availability.) But you could do as many or as few dives as you wanted. By the end of the week the totals for any individual ranged from 11 dives to 24 dives.

We were very pleased to get one of our favorite Buddy DMs assigned to us, Judmar "Zoo" Obispo. To say Zoo is a character is an understatement. He's always got a story to tell, it always has some questionable "facts" involved (but which always makes them more entertaining) and, when you add in his strong Caribbean accent (he's originally from Curacao), it always makes for interesting listening.

Our favorite story this year was when he told us of the signal he uses for Garden Eels. It consists of a single finger on his left hand, pointing straight up between the slight spread of index and second finger of his right hand (held horizontal), and then moving his vertical finger slowly up and down, like the way Garden Eels bob up and down in the sand.

Apparently he was on a dive and spotted Garden Eels. Zoo turned to the group and gave the signal. And after the dive, one of the women took him aside on the boat and said, "Zoo, what are you saying to me down there??? I'm much too old for you boy!!! Where is your mind???" So Zoo now tells this story and adds, "If you see me doing that down there, I'm talking about the EELS, and nothing else!!" It also gave rise to a running joke for us that if someone in the group showed someone else an extended digit, the inevitable reply was, "That better be a Garden Eel you're showing me!!!"

To say we have a grand time above and below the water would be an understatement. Along with blowing bubbles, there was a lot of laughter, sometimes raucous, on this trip. And that just adds to the overall enjoyment, despite conditions that were not as pristine as we've encountered in the past.

Water temp was running around 82-83ļ (most everyone wore a 3mm suit) although we had a couple of dives where we encountered a thermocline of about 79ļ that felt a lot colder than it sounds. And the vis was probably 50-80 feet with noticeable particulate in the water, unlike the 100-foot plus blue/blue water we remember from past trips. Still pretty good (and apparently a large improvement from a few weeks earlier where it was 20-30 feet) and there were some spots that were better than others.

One distressing thing we noticed on all the reefs was the presence of what appears to be an invasive red algae. It doesn't cover every portion of every reef, but itís certainly noticeable here and there. And while it's easily dispersed by a good fanning that also spreads it more into the water column. I would assume that, left unchecked, this may cause some problems. I had wanted to go to talk to the managers of the Marine Park to learn more about this but never got a chance (so Iíll have to do it via e-mail).

You may have also been reading about coral bleaching (where the tiny algae that lives inside the coral abandons the coral, leaving a white skeleton) in the Caribbean this year. We certainly saw some, but not extensively and not on every reef. The reasons for the bleaching are still not entirely known but are thought to be some combination of thermal and environmental stresses. You'll see a picture of the bleaching in one photo that accompanies this report.

We also felt there weren't as many fish as we were used to seeing in the past. This view seemed to be shared by all of us who had been to Bonaire before. Now this doesnít mean it's fished out but just that the fish didn't seem as uniformly abundant as in the past. But there were sites (Larry's Lair immediately comes to mind - more on that in a moment) where the fish were all over the place.

And while we didn't think we saw as many fish as before, there were some things we saw more of than in the past. Spotted Drums, French & Queen Angels (but surprisingly no Grays), Parrotfish of all colors and hues, Goatfish, and Masked/Glass Gobies seemed abundant. We even saw dozens of squid over the course of the week, and thatís an increase over the past. So there's still plenty of stuff to see.

And we learned an amazing new fish fact (courtesy of Zoo): French Angelfish love watermelon. At the end of one dive, Zoo handed me two slices of watermelon and said, "Go give these to the French Angels." It was amazing, like feeding time at the Aquarium of the Pacific. Two Angels made a beeline for me and started munching on melon. And . . . they can even spit out the seeds.

We ran into more cleaning than I remember seeing in the past. Most strikingly, we saw dozens and dozens of Tiger Groupers, mouths agape, getting the once over from cleaner shrimp, small wrasses, and juvy Spanish Hogfish. Many times, we could hang motionless just a foot or two from the fish while all this was going on. Really fascinating to watch and important to understand how critical cleaning is to the health of the fish and the overall health and diversity of the reef.

There were certainly times when we were inundated by fish On a dive at Small Wall, we suddenly encountered a literal river of Creole Wrasses who must have taken 10-15 minutes to stream on by us.

Perhaps our most spectacular fish encounter occurred on a late afternoon dive at Larry's Lair, which is just north of the Salt Pier. As we entered the water and kicked out across the sandy shallows to the dropoff (most of the Bonaire reefs start in about 30 feet of water and then gently slope down to 70-100 feet where they flatten out to a sandy plain), we noticed the water looked a little milky and the vis didn't seem too good. But as we approached the reef, we could see there were Brown Chromis everywhere and they were darting about as if they were being given electrical shocks.

What we were witnessing was a mass mating. The Chromis were depositing eggs and sperm in the water column with the hopes that the eggs would fertilize and the current would carry them away. Other species (like Creole Wrasse and Blue Tangs) were zipping in trying to eat the eggs and get a meal. The whole thing was choreographed chaos, with groups of fish zooming here and there, and everything happening at breakneck speed. We spent a good hour on this site watching the reproductive drama unfold before our very eyes. Amazing.

Bonaire is also known for seahorses and we certainly got our share of those (as youíll see in the pictures). The dive guides are very good at finding these little guys and are also very good at monitoring the divers to make sure you don't kick the poor little things or flash them too often with cameras. We found some red ones (very striking) and some brown ones (rather dull looking) but they're always interesting creatures to see.

Also interesting, and even harder to find, are the Frogfish. Bonaire is also known for those and I still don't know how the guides spot them, even though I know they're fairly stationary and probably never move more than a few yards from where they were the day before. But still, they're tough to find and sometimes, the guide can be pointing right at the Frogfish and you're going to yourself, "What's he pointing at???"

Zoo declared Wednesday "Frogfish Day" and was determined to find some for us. He (and DM Fred Jansen) came through in spades. On our second dive (at South Bay on Klein), Fred found not one, not two (but two of them were together - a multi-hued female and a much smaller red/orange male) but THREE frogfish.

Now before you go looking for the frogfish pictures, I must explain why there aren't any. It's a Bad-News/Good-News story and involves a photographerís worst fear - flood.

The short version Bad News part of this is that, apparently due to an o-ring not seating well, I had a port latch pop free while the camera (Nikon D70) was in the rinse tank. The Good News part of it is that it was fresh water (I tasted it to check), the housing didn't fully flood (but there was a cup of water inside) and it doesn't seem like the camera got immersed. However, it definitely at least got splashed. And while I couldnít see any water damage when I opened things up, I discovered on the next dive that there were certain camera functions that werenít working, it seemed like the strobe didnít always sync up, and the exposures seemed off (but thank goodness for histograms).

The other Good News part of this is that the camera seemed 90% functional and, at the suggestion of Regan, I took his wife Julie's hair dryer and blasted some hot air up into the body of the camera through the battery hatch, hoping to dry out whatever moisture might be inside. And the next morning, it seemed like everything was back to normal. (But I'll still take the camera in to Nikon to have it checked.) A favorite saying of mine bears repeating: It's not IF your camera will flood, but WHEN your camera will flood. In this case, I got lucky.

Luck was also with us when we returned to Larry's Lair a few days after the mass mating. There were still tons of Chromis in the area but it seemed like the frenzy had quieted down and the water was certainly clearer. But there was just a lot of animal activity still going on and, best of all, we were able to knock out two "I-wanna-see . . ." for Bob Nankin and Linda Gorman.

Bob wanted to see a juvy Smooth Trunkfish, which are about the size of a marble and are colored like dice, with a black body and pale yellow spots. Linda wanted to see a Flamingo Tongue. We got Bobís little guy out of the way right as we dropped down and got Linda's towards the very end of the dive as we started the kick back in. So it appeared our camera luck carried over to creature luck.

We did not dive either the Town Pier nor the Salt Pier this time. In my opinion, even though the Town Pier is considered a world-class night dive (the only time you can dive it), there are simply too many divers on a small site - since ALL the dive operators take people there - and it's not a pleasant experience.

The Salt Pier, which we've dove and loved in the past, now requires a local guide for escort (which you have to pay extra for) and you have to give them name and passport information a day ahead of time before they'll clear you. All in the name of Homeland Security. We took a pass. However . . .

If you'd like to be sneaky (not that I'd ever suggest you do so), you could always enter at the site just north of the Salt Pier (Jeannieís Glory), do a fairly easy kick underwater over the to the Salt Pier, explore it to your heart's content, and then kick underwater back to Jeannie's and I would assume no one would be any the wiser. But then again, itís not something I'm advocating, only something that might be possible.

Some of the other sites we hit during our week there included Knife, Small Wall, Alice in Wonderland, Forrest, Ebo's Reef, Ol' Blue, Karpata, Kallie's Reef, Something Special, Andrea II, Bloodlet, 1000 Steps, Runaway (Windsock), and the ever-reliable Hilma Hooker, to name a few.

We noticed a few other things different, below and above the water, from other visits to Bonaire. First, there didn't seem to be many Tarpon at Buddy's Reef. (We're told there were five up at Captain Don's.) Secondly, we saw very few of the Bonaire wild Donkeys. On previous trips, we'd see them almost every day. On this trip, we saw maybe seven all week long. And thirdly, there were tons of Flamingoes, more than we'd ever seen before. In fact, one day we went south for a surface-interval-flamingo-hunt and came across an area just beyond the Willemstoren Light where there must have been 500 of them. Wow!!!

All in all though, it was a lovely trip and we'll certainly keep Bonaire on our list of destinations for the future. Bonaire truly lives up to its name of ďA Diverís Paradise.Ē With 86 marked/moored sites, it means youíve got plenty of diving to choose from. 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 itís not a place where youíre going to find a lot of big animals, itís certainly a place where you can still come away with some incredible diving experiences and memories that will last a lifetime.

And we had one more pleasant surprise that I discovered at 5:30AM when we were in the Flamingo Airport waiting for that previous-cursed Continental flight. The surprise was: Free Internet!!! I have no idea where the signal comes from (it just says "Linksys") but the bottom line is that, once you clear the security checkpoint and are inside waiting for your flight, you can connect at no charge and at least make the time productive.

And with that kind of a combination: Great diving easy access, multitudes of sites to choose from, lots of fish, interesting things to see below and above the water AND free Internet when you're ready to leave, how can you resist?

In all seriousness, give some thought to Bonaire if you've never been before or havenít been in a while. It will provide you with some memorable dives.

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