BONAIRE - August, 2007

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

We’ve just completed our 6th trip to the diver’s paradise of Bonaire. (In fact, the slogan on their license plate reads "A Diver’s Paradise.") Once again, we stayed with and did our diving through Buddy Dive Resort. And while the diving was very good (we’ll get to that in moment), it was the trip home that provided all the drama. This was all due to a little weather disturbance known as Hurricane Dean.

We’d been watching the formation of Dean all week (one of the advantages of having Internet access even on vacation). And when it became clear that Dean was heading for Jamaica, we knew we had a problem and had to do something.

We’d flown to Bonaire on Air Jamaica (red-eye out of LAX - which left 3 hours late, but at least they called us to let us know) through Montego Bay, arriving in Bonaire mid-afternoon. The return called for us to leave Bonaire mid-afternoon and fly to Montego Bay, spend Saturday night in Jamaica, and then fly out nonstop to LAX Sunday afternoon.

But the forecast called for Dean to be a Category 4 (very dangerous) storm and that it would roll right through the middle of Jamaica on Sunday, with the eye passing through the island (bringing the strongest winds) around 2PM Sunday. Needless to say, we didn’t want to overnight in Jamaica nor get stuck in post-Dean aftermath.

Our experience here again points out the advantages for divers to travel with an organized group with a responsible and proactive group leader (whether it’s me or someone else). I sent an e-mail Wednesday night to my contact at Air Jamaica and asked about re-booking options. She replied first thing Thursday morning (we weren’t diving until the afternoon so we “talked” all morning via e-mail.) We settled on the idea of still flying to Montego Bay on Saturday but then flying out Saturday night to Chicago where we’d then have to buy one-way tickets on another airline to get us into LAX. And even though that was going to cost us an extra $350 each, we figured that was better than riding out the Hurricane in Jamaica (and we heard they planned to close the airport for at least a day) and then maybe getting stuck for three or four more days not able to get out due to already-full flights. Turns out we flew out on one of the last planes to leave Montego Bay Saturday night. Whew!!!

And although Bonaire was not directly in Dean’s path, it was interesting to see how the water changed from Friday night, when it was nice and calm, to Saturday morning. We awoke to very choppy and rough conditions, waves breaking against the shoreline (and with enough force that they were doing damage to the dock at Buddy’s), limited visibility, and debris in the water. Not good, or safe, diving conditions to say the least.

In fact, the ocean was rough enough that all the Saturday diving was cancelled at Buddy’s as well as at other resorts. It’s not that big a deal since most people are leaving Saturday and the new groups are arriving, so there’s not much diving going on even under perfect conditions. But there were a few people staying over and Buddy’s dive manager Augusto Montbrun Segini (everyone just calls him “Augusto”) felt it was the prudent thing to do.

By the time we checked out of the resort, the wind had died down somewhat (although it was predicted to pick back up in the evening), the ocean had calmed a bit, and when we took off, we could see two boats on moorings at Klein Bonaire. But the whole experience underscores the power of nature and the need for you to be able and willing to adjust dive or travel plans accordingly.

There were eight in our group this year, two newbies to Bonaire and six veterans. The divers were: Wil & Linda Lemley (vets), Jim & Diana Cooper (vets), Pat O’Brien (vet), Erik Storsteen (newbie), Laurie Kasper (newbie), and me, Ken Kurtis (vet and the author of this report).

The topside weather and underwater conditions overall were pretty good. Air temps each day were in the mid-to-upper 80s and water temps read a pretty consistent 84º on my gauge. Visibility was not as good as it’s been in the past but apparently was better than it was a couple of weeks earlier. We generally had about 50-60’ of vis (although at Rappel it was close to 100’), with noticeable particulate in the water. It still made for good diving, but not the pristine blue water we’ve come to expect from Bonaire.

One problem we had this time was mosquitoes and no-see-ums. Generally I don’t get bitten, but everyone (as well as me) ended up with numerous little bites and welts by the end of the week. Not debilitating but certainly annoying. Jim & Diana had brought some pre-packaged Off towelettes that seemed to work pretty well so you might want to think about adding those to your save-a-dive kit.

We had some unusual rooms this year at Buddy’s Two were the standard apartment-type rooms that we’ve had in the past, with a central hallway ending in an open kitchen area and a living room which opens on to a balcony or patio (depending on what floor you’re on) and with a bedroom, bathroom off of the hallway.

But we had two other rooms that, while they were about the same size, were weirdly configured. As soon as you opened the door, you were not only in the bedroom, but you almost smacked the bed with the door. Walk through that and you were now in the same kitchen/living room area (with a balcony or patio) that the other rooms have. But walking right into the bedroom made them feel a little weird.

And we had one room on the Lion’s Den side (Buddy’s bought Lions’ Den about a year ago and the two are now run as one resort) which was listed a suite but which was also weirdly configured.

It had a huge bedroom and a very large bathroom which was very nice. But the kitchen/living area was tiny and I mean REALLY tiny. And there was no real patio to speak of. The bedroom/bathroom was fine, but the rest of it was . . . well, small. As the joke goes, "The room was so small you had to step outside to change your mind."

We realized later on that what the “suite” really was is the second bedroom of an adjacent two-bedroom apartment. The 2-bedroom apartment has the standard large kitchen/living room, balcony or patio, and an additional bedroom and bathroom.

If you got the whole thing as a two-bedroom, the suite would have been really fine since you’d have the other living room to hang out in as well as a full patio. But as a stand-alone by itself, the suite was doable but we weren’t too crazy about it. If you’re staying at Buddy’s you might want to get them to clarify as best they can what type of accommodation you’ll be getting.

That being said, we do love staying at Buddy’s. We signed up for the "Dive & Drive" program so we get a vehicle (double-cab 4-seater trucks this year - and we even had ones where the air conditioning worked!!!!) for each of the set of rooms (technically we had two 2-bedroom units so we got two vehicles). Having the vehicle gives you the advantage of being able to do dives at the multitude of Bonaire’s marked dive sites that are accessible from shore, as well as it gives the option of touring the island, running into town for supplies (we always start the trip by stocking up soda and munchies at the Culitmara Supermarket), and gong out for lunch &/or dinner.

We ended up dining out every evening. (For lunch, we generally went to Subway for a foot-long, which we could make last two days.) We went to Papaya Moon (Mexican flair, very good), Casablanca (we went for the Monday slide show which was so-so and matched the food), Donna & Giorgio’s (still good, but I liked the original location and menu better), City Cafe (near the Town Pier - nothing fancy but surprisingly good), and Capriccio (just down from the City Cafe and a bit upscale, but very good overall).

However, our favorite was Cactus Blue. The fact that the owner, Corinna Wegener used to be the dive manager at Buddy’s doesn’t factor in to it, other than that we’re given a warm welcome. But we thought the food was quite good and interesting as there’s a Caribbean flair to everything (Corinna’s husband, Hagen, is the chef and has assembled a great menu). I had ribs one night and a Jambalaya pasta - with shrimp, chicken, and spicy sausage - another night. Cactus Blue also has a nice wine list, a very comfortable atmosphere, and it was just a pleasant experience overall both times we went. We recommend it highly (and no, I don’t get a kickback for saying that.)

But you’re probably interested in reading about the diving too. Simply put, it’s pleasant and easy. I don’t know that there’s any dive where you come back and rave that it was one of the best dives of your life, but you never hit the other end of the spectrum either, where you feel like you just wasted an hour underwater. And there’s a definite sameness to a lot of the dives. In other words, there’s probably a 75% overlap in what you’re going to see site-to-site. But that’s also one of the strengths of Bonaire, it’s consistency.

There are certain sites where you go for specific things. At Forest, you’re going to look for Black Coral. At Something Special, it was frogfish, At Small Wall, the hunt was one for seahorses (and we found THREE). At the Hilma Hooker you’re looking for the wreck of the Hilma Hooker (which - at 240 feet long - is sort of hard to miss). Of course, this puts tremendous pressure on the DMs to find some of the more elusive critters. Sometimes, it’s almost like choosing from a menu. “I’ll have the seahorse to start with, frogfish as my main attraction, and could you throw in a side of Spotted Drum????”

Another advantage of being in a group is that we had a boat specifically assigned to us and generally had the same DM/guides all week long. This meant that we could not only go to the sites we wanted to go to, but that the guides got to know our diving style, knew what we had seen before, and knew what we were looking. And with only eight of us on the boat, it was certainly uncrowded.

One of our guides is well-known in Bonaire. That would be Murphy Henar, better known simply as Murph. He’s a native of Suriname and has been with Buddy Dive since 1993. Needless to say, he knows the reefs well and was able to lead us right to the creatures that we had on our list. Perhaps the most amazing find was at Something Special where Murph found the yellow frogfish he’d told us about but also found a BLACK one that’s in the area.

Now if you’ve ever seen or found a frogfish, you know how tough it is to see them even when you know what you’re looking at. But a black one is simply infinitely more difficult to see, even when you’re staring right at the thing. In fact, the way Murph confirmed it was the frogfish he was looking for and not a dark sponge was that, after he thought he spotted it, he took his camera out, shot a picture way over-exposed (because that’s the easiest way to spot the critter), and then confirmed this was our guy.

I’ve got a similar shot on our website in amongst the pictures that go with this report. Check it out and you’ll see first-hand what I’m talking about.

The dive guides also presented us with an interesting dilemma on this trip and something I’ve never really had happen before. We had one guide (whose name can go unmentioned for now - definitely not Murph) who simply wasn’t very good. In fact, he was not only less-than-good, but had a bad attitude to boot. And for the first time ever, the group had a pow-wow without me and discussed the issue and unanimously voted that this guy shouldn’t be given any part of our tip money.

We’re generally known as a fairly good-tipping group. And it was felt that this might be a way to send him a message. (On top of that, I talked with Augusto about the situation and explained what we were doing and why.) The downside of this is that Buddy’s, like many large resorts, pools the tips and split them amongst all the staff, since there are some people you never come in direct contact with whose work also contributes to the enjoyment of your week. So the net effect may be that this guy will never really know how we felt.

But I’ll also be sending an e-mail to Augusto to be shared with the DM about what our experience was with him. Because basically, he didn’t seem to enjoy what he was doing, would frequently complain about things, rarely pointed critters out, simply kicked along with the rest of the group, and then signaled when it was time to turn at the hallway mark and when it was time to end the dive. I thought of him (to myself) as a Hall Monitor. And since everyone in the group knew how to keep time, he didn’t serve us well.

But it also brings up the overall point about what you should do, whether you’re traveling alone or with a group, if you feel like you’re getting bad service or something less than what you’d expect. I think you make your feelings known and then, if it doesn’t improve, withholding the tip is a very appropriate thing to do. It certainly sends a message, especially if you give some verbal or written comments with it as well.

Turns out in this guy’s case, he was going through some very severe personal problems. And while we can sympathize, by the same token, if you’re not able to do the job, then you shouldn’t do it. At the risk of sounding crass, it’s a service business and you need to leave the personal problems home. If you can’t, then get assigned to something like tank fills or washing gear where you have minimal contact with guests and your bad attitude wouldn’t cast a pall over an otherwise delightful week.

We saw a lot of cool stuff over the course of our week. We did 11 boat dives and anywhere from 0 to 10 shore dives. Some of the shore dives were ones where we drive in the truck (Larry’s Lair and Ol’ Blue) and other times we simply dove the Buddy’s Reef right from the dock.

The nice thing about diving the house reef is that you can really learn where things are. For instance, I really wanted to go shoot some Yellow-headed Jawfish. I’d found them on one dive and was able to go back on a subsequent dive with my macro lens hooked up and get some good shots. (You can be the judge of that as the results are on the website.)

We also did a number of night dives on Buddy’s Reef. It’s easy, convenient, and is actually a pretty good dive in and of itself. Perhaps the favorite dive was a dusk dive we did the first dive day, where we entered a little after 6PM (sundown’s at 7PM) and came out just after sunset. There was a lot of activity on the reef with some change-over from the day to night reef, and a lot of daytime animals either getting in a final cleaning or looking for a snack before turning in for the night.

Another favorite night dive was what’s become a Bonaire tradition with us, the Midnight Night Dive. Simply put, we want to make sure that one evening, we’re diving at midnight. This year we went in around 11:15PM and came out at 12:30AM. And this was the one night where we had great tarpon activity, even though it was only from a single tarpon.

In case you’re not familiar, the Tarpon of Bonaire are actively hunting at night and have learned over the years to seek out divers and hunt by the edges of our lights. The guy that we had with us was easily six feet long and was quite actively pursuing a meal. They look like an armor-plated mirror and so the first thing you see as the fish crosses the path of your light beam is this eerie round spot which is actually your light reflecting off of the retina of the fish’s eye. Then the entire fish will gradually (or rapidly, depending on how fast they’re swimming) come into view. Very interesting to watch them at work (I spent over 15 minutes observing this one) and realize how many seemingly easy meals they miss and how many times they attempt a strike and simply miss.

We commented last year about an invasive red algae that we noticed on a lot of the reefs. Whatever it was, it seems to have abated. It’s still evident in places but is not nearly as prevalent as I recall from last year.

We also commented last year that there didn’t seem to be as many fish as there had been in years past. I wouldn’t make that comment this year. Bonaire seems to be as fishy as ever and one thing I noticed this year was that there seemed to be an explosion among the Parrotfish population and they were a lot easier to approach than they had been in years past. One of the more interesting encounters was with not one, but two very large Midnight Parrotfish at the beginning of our dive at Petrie’s Pillar.

We also saw lots of Scissotail Damsels, plenty of French Angels (and we again fed watermelon to two of them at Forrest - they’ll eat it right out of your hand), Queen Angels, lots of eels (Spotted, Sharptail, Chain, and Goldentail), plenty of puffers, the aforementioned seahorses and frogfish, and a lot of Spotted Drums, both adults juvies and even intermediates.

The coral in Bonaire is also very healthy, colorful, and diverse. There are a multitude of species of coral found in Bonaire and it seems like you’ll see all of it over the course of a week. In the past, we’d noticed significant coral bleaching but that was certainly not evident in the sites we dove this year. Hopefully this means the reef is recovering.

When you put all of this together, it makes for a really great week of diving at a very pretty place with a pace that makes you feel like you’ve really gotten away from everything but in a location that’s got enough amenities that you don’t feel like you’re roughing it.

Sound good to you? Then put Bonaire on your list of places to go. We’ll be going back. Maybe you can join us next time.

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